Saturday 26 November 2022

What to Wear 13

Upper Upwards wear a lot of cashmere in subtle colours. Samantha Upward buys her jerseys (never a "jumper" or "sweater") from ebay, and sometimes dyes them with Dylon or natural dyes like onion skins, tea and blackberries. The garments are old, and wear through quickly or get eaten by moths, but you can always buy more. You can even cut out squares from the uneaten bits, machine them together and turn them into another garment.

Here’s a list of very upmarket items you didn’t know you needed. 

Cashmere wash
Cashmere brush
Yacht varnish
Escargot tongs
Grape scissors
Mink storage closet
Marble polish
Silver champagne trug
Cordless hoover for your yurt
Curry comb for the alpacas

Per the Times, Nov 2022, middle-class parents dress and accessorise their children entirely in “sad beige”. This extends to dolls, toys and even mugs and plates. But as Jilly Cooper points out, “All little girls are lower middle class” (Class, 1975). Aged six, I wanted to wear a tutu all the time, and see-through plastic high heels, and wave a pink plastic miniature umbrella printed with ballerinas. Mum disdained shop-bought fancy dress – she always made ours, without consulting us, so we were forced to wear a humiliating cracker costume instead of what we wanted – something pretty.

Kate Long (@volewriter) is fighting the good fight against small boys’ clothes plastered with dinosaurs and spaceships, while girls’ clothes are pink and decorated with mottos like LOVE or PRINCESS. She’s right to be indignant, but this is also a class thing. Clothes covered in slogans, feathers, rhinestones, pink plastic beads and a unicorn appliqué are naff. But I always wanted organdie, gauze and net. And multiple flounces. And I still want to meet Prince Charming.

Again quoting Jilly Cooper: when working class men go tieless, they spread their shirt collar neatly over the lapels of their jacket. There was a fad a few years ago for middle-class men to lose the ties, but they were awkward and half-hearted about it. They just took the tie off and the shirt collar looked empty and untidy. I think the trend has passed.

Who was Liz Truss's stylist? Women politicians are going for dresses in block colours, rather than suits. It's a uniform: safe but dull, skirts to mid-calf, featuring the kind of drapery over the bust that used to be recommended to large ladies circa 1955. Truss has an hourglass figure, and nobody advised her to adopt the Bessie Braddock armoured corset. But in a short skirt her curtsey would have looked even more uncertain. 

Are Fair Isle jumpers a sign of frumpy nerdiness? Aran jumpers probably the same, though they had a moment in the 70s.

Sam buys an outfit for her daughter’s wedding, but shudders at the term “occasion wear”. Middle-class Jen Teale yearns for the days of the coffee lace two-piece – dress with matching coat. Caro Stow-Crat wears a short jacket with a fishtail midi skirt to hide her legs in the photographs. 

When Jen takes off her jersey, her T shirt never rises with it, exposing her midriff or still worse, bra. She has just learned and rehearsed a method – she probably tucks the shirt into her waistband. 

Sharon Definitely never wears the same designer outfit twice – she buys the garment, tucks in the labels, wears it once and returns it. (Dress hire companies still exist and flourish.)

Don’t tie your jumper or cardigan round your waist, or you’ll look like a child from the council estate – I was told by a girl from the council estate. And pushing up your sleeves "made you look like a washerwoman", said the nuns - especially if you then put your hands on your hips. Folding your arms was out too. (Any gesture that meant your hands touched your body were out – including putting your palms on your thighs when sitting down – these are injunctions that go back to the 18th century.)

Working-class people buy “name brands” to show they can afford them. This means the middle classes shun those brands and buy cheaper generic clothes – or expensive brands that don’t flash their identity. Boden-wearers like to pretend that they spend their entire lives on a deserted white-sand beach.

Caro asks: What happened to “country clothes” and “town clothes”? There was a moment in the 1920s when women could only wear black in town. So if you lived there year-round it would be rather funereal! The answer is that you didn’t live there all year round – you spent most of your time in the country, where you wore tweeds and emphatically no black unless someone had died. There are many restrictive rules about what you can’t wear in the country (high heels, black stockings), but what about the town? It’s full of visitors wearing hiking costume, though there’s still a dress code in the City.

From the 30s to the 50s, ankle-strap shoes were beyond the pale, especially with Cuban heels. But the most vulgar shoes ever are orange plastic kitten-heeled slingbacks with square toes from the mid-60s – worn with a touch of grime on your ankle bone, as Nell Dunn (Up the Junction) observed. Upwards could not wear sexy shoes back then, because they were “bad for your feet”. Probably true.

In the 70s, boots slid down the class ladder (became cheaper and more available), and were adopted by a secretary called Dawn. She had long hair parted in the middle, a vacant smile, a skinny jumper and an A line miniskirt. Her’s boots only reached mid-calf – Upward girls wore boots that came up to the knee (and were probably more expensive). Of course you needed to be slender and long-legged to pull off the Dawn look. She saved for a month to afford her boots. Upward girls never saved, they just ran up an overdraft.

Hercule Poirot’s patent leather shoes, that he thinks are smart and shiny, mark him out as “not one of us”. Yet he can tell that a client is not really a lady because her shoes are cheap and too new. A lady wears “good” (expensive) shoes but then gets a lot of wear out of them. Before patent leather was invented, the aim was to get black leather shoes and boots as shiny as possible – this took a lot of work. In a big house, a boy was employed to clean the household’s shoes. He was known as the “boots”. In the army, a lot of time was spent (wasted) on “bull” – polishing equipment including boots until everything shone. Shoeshine boys in the streets made a good living. But keeping patent leather shiny took hardly any work. Suddenly shiny black shoes were no longer a “sign” of being able to employ someone to spend hours on your appearance, or of having done the hard work yourself.

Upward women can’t dress too sexily – what they'd call "stereotypically feminine". They may wear a more relaxed version of current clothing – nothing too tight, skirts not too short, makeup discreet, hair not too processed, heels not too high. They aim for a natural, healthy, wholesome, practical look (see the Boden catalogue). When this cuts no ice, they may try too hard, but their tight jeans and exposed cleavage will only garner disapproving looks from their female friends. But at least the “natural look” is preferable to the academic bag lady look – layers of flapping garments that entirely conceal the figure. 

In the 70s, pretty girls were referred to as “pre-Raphaelite”. Lank hair, unmade-up face, absence of bra and cheesecloth top were supposed to be deliberately Unsexy, and it was galling when men found these girls attractive. This elfin, waiflike look was only available to the young, small and slight. And these girls didn’t have to be warm, friendly or outgoing, didn’t have to learn one subject of conversation really well, meet people halfway, or make any effort at all. They just had to BE. Lucky things. (Upward advice is always of the "work on yourself" variety – never "get a makeover". That would be far too practical.)

Unlike the British upper middle classes, well-heeled Europeans show off their wealth. They used to wear fur coats, and still sport expensive leather jackets, good handbags with gold chains, well-cut jeans, and leather boots. Their clothes look very new and clean. They go blonde, not grey – honey blonde, since they usually start out with dark hair. 

Labour Party leader Michael Foot did not wear a donkey jacket to the memorial service at the Cenotaph, it was an olive green duffel coat without shoulder protectors. Middle England still woofles that he was disrespectful not to wear the establishment uniform of black or navy Crombie overcoat. And as a Labour leader he just would have worn a donkey jacket, the uniform of the Irish navvy, wouldn't he? But so what if he had? 

More here, and links to the rest.

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