Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review: 1940s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook by Emmanuelle Dirix, edited by Charlotte Fiell

Another fabulous volume in the series of Fashion sourcebooks by Emmanuelle Dirix from Goodman Fiell, edited by Charlotte Fiell.

As in the 30s Fashion volume (which I reviewed here), there's a wealth of fashion plate drawings, many previously unseen, and Hollywood stills, and there's a truly fascinating introduction by fashion historian Emmanuelle Dirix in which she counters a conception of fashion as irrelevant in wartime and the prevailing view of the war-time forties as a time when fashion went into abeyance. For most of the period, she points out, the fashion industry was of great interest to governments on both sides of the conflict, both for its economic importance and as a means of keeping up national morale. There are sections of the Introduction devoted to each of Germany, Britain, America and France, which show that the ways in which their wartime governments and populations engaged with fashion was more divergent, and much more complex, than has been generally considered.

In Germany, for instance, while Hitler condemned haute couture as part of a Jewish conspiracy - a merely money-making enterprise encouraging unhealthy lifestyles antipathetic to his 'Gretchen' ideal of the natural, healthy home-based German woman - the German populace was less convinced. German designers were only mildly influenced by Hitler's promotion of Trachtenkleidung, the traditional dress, if at all; the wives of Nazi party officials remained loyal to Jewish designers, and although makeup and hair dye was frowned on, while stocks remained available sales didn't decrease, and that of peroxide (in a perhaps ironic inversion of the German Aryan ideal) actually increased. The 'Aryanisation' of fashion stores went on apace, but Hitler was never less than keen to utilise the economic potential of the fashion industry, intending to move Europe's fashion capital to Berlin after the war. He formed the German Fashion Institute, appointing Magda Goebbels as honorary president, dismissing her soon but only because she espoused the notion of the liberated modern woman Hitler rejected by expressing her intention to make German women 'stylish and intelligent'. As the war proceeded and supplies of materials diminished and clothes production did indeed cease, the Nazis adopted fashion as propaganda, Joseph Geobbels backing a new fashion magazine Die Monde, intended entirely to keep up morale and presenting clothes either for export only or in fact imaginary and sometimes stamped 'unavailable'.

The illustrations from the book below, both from Iris Magazine, Leipzig, Summer 1942, show respectively the traditional costume as promoted by Hitler, and a fashion plate only mildly influenced by the look.

While up until the war Paris had been the dictator of global fashion, now austerity measures pointed the way in Britain and America to styles requiring less usage of materials: shorter skirts and fitted tight-waisted clothes for women, trousers without turn-ups for men, an absence of embellishment, drabber colours and a resort to synthetic fabrics (chemicals for dyes, silks, leather and wool etc being requisitioned for the war effort). Governments were closely involved in this, the British government establishing not only measures to restrict the use of materials, but also, highly aware of fashion as a morale-booster, instituting the Utility scheme, whereby (a restricted range of) good materials and well-made articles could be made available to all. The employment of women for war work meant that for the first time trousers were accepted wear for women (and not just the fashionable elite) and brought in the turban (for keeping hair away from machinery) which remained fashionable throughout the decade. Although this more mannish style became the unchanging silhouette for women's fashion throughout the period, there was much innovation in terms of detail, particularly with regard to accessories, nurtured by the 'Make Do and Mend' propaganda campaign headed, as the war went on, by the Women's Voluntary Service. Making do and mending became both a source of national pride (rather than as previously, with the rise of ready-to-wear garments in the 30s, a matter of poverty and shame) and an opportunity to express individuality and femininity; meanwhile the British government made efforts to secure supplies of lipstick and conducted its morale-boosting 'Beauty on Duty' campaign.

An illustration from the book showing Berketex Utility fashions, 1943 (copyright: Planet News/Science and Social Picture Library):

and another showing prep-inspired American knitted separates, separates being an important feature of a wartime wardrobe requiring warmth and adaptability (1945 and 1946):

The Paris fashion industry, meanwhile, remained relatively insulated from these effects. Towards the end of the 30s, Paris had been bringing in an extravagant nineteenth-century-influenced style (long, full and bustled skirts, much embellishment), and although the shows of autumn 1939 (just before the expected invasion of Poland) and spring 1940 showed influence of a more restrained style in daywear including military notes, and greater practicality in evening wear (such as long sleeves for dashing to air raid shelters), once Paris was cut off by the German occupation (June 1940) its fashion developed independently along those earlier lines, shocking the rest of the West with its opulence when the war ended in 1946.

These illustrations show, left, a luxurious 1942 Parisian cocktail dress in printed satin and tulle and with a full skirt, and, right, a 1941 Parisian evening gown with drapes requiring plentiful fabric:

Dirix tackles the general view that the survival of the Paris fashion industry was due to collaboration by Paris fashion designers with the Nazis, contending that the situation was more complex. Some Paris designers, she notes, fought closure by the Nazis as a matter of national pride and displayed other forms of resistance down to using patriotic colours in their designs, as in the following illustration, a 1945 cover of Modes de Paris featuring a romantically styled dress making luxurious use of materials but coloured red, white and blue:

Received opinion has it that the main Paris customers were Nazis, but Dirix points out that this would have been too small a market, and that patrons were more likely to be French collaborators and black marketeers.  The culmination of this Paris look was Dior's sumptuous New Look, which was slow to take on in a shocked and disapproving world that, postwar, could ill-afford such designs anyway (though it took the world by storm by the 50s), and so the postwar years of the decade featured the two contrasting styles running side by side.

A coat by Dior, with generous shawl collar and full skirt, worn over a full pleated skirt (Album de Figaro, Winter Collections, 1947):

Sections of the book dividing the illustrations into Daywear, Outerwear, Eveningwear, Accessories and Other (which covers workwear, uniform, swimwear and underwear) are prefaced with useful summings up of developments throughout the decade, although the Daywear preface unfortunately includes a replication of the assumption about the buyers of wartime Paris fashion that is questioned in the Introduction (however, my copy may have been a proof copy and the inconsistency may have been ironed out). Needless to say, since Paris suffered least with regard to fashion, it is Paris fashion that makes up the bulk of the illustrations, which, without a careful reading of the Introduction, could give a somewhat skewed impression of wartime fashion. Some of the illustrations are contextualised by their captions, but I felt that stricter grouping by both chronology and nation would have made it easier to grasp the comparative story.

Once again, though, another wonderful source book for anyone with any level of  interest in fashion, professional or otherwise.

1940s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook by Emmanuelle Dirix (Goodman Fiell), available here or from all good bookshops.

(All images reproduced above: copyright Fell Image Archive 2013, unless otherwise stated.)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reading group: The End of Alice by A M Homes

I bought this book in the late nineties when it was first in paperback, but had somehow never got around to opening it, and when, due to the absence of others from the group, I was unexpectedly required to make a suggestion for the next meeting, I grabbed it off the shelf, aware not only that A M Homes was at the time shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction, but that like Emily Prager's Roger Fishbite (published around the same time and which we have previously discussed), this book was something of an answer to Nabokov's Lolita (which we have also discussed) and might make an interesting comparison.

The difference turned out to be stark. Unlike Emily Prager who seeks in Roger Fishbite to redress the balance by taking the viewpoint of the 'nymphet', Homes follows Nabokov in taking the viewpoint of the incarcerated male murderer-paedophile. Here, however, he has murdered not his rival for the young girl's attention (as in Nabokov) but the young girl herself (and possibly others), and this novel graphically exposes the mentality and fantasies of the paedophile as horrific and entirely lacking in moral centre, in a way that provokes revulsion in the reader (which led to attempts, some successful, to ban it) and makes the book a very unpleasant read.

As a result, I felt the need to begin my introduction with an apology: truly, if I had known the book's tenor beforehand I wouldn't have imposed it quite so unthinkingly on the group, but as I said to them I do think the book's unpleasantness, and its effect of horror in the reader - real horror, rather than the delicious chill of so-called 'horror' fiction - are entirely deliberate and strongly politically motivated. On finishing the book I felt that by comparison Lolita, with its fine writing and its redeeming or at least excusing insistence on the romantic yearning of Humbert Humbert for lost youth, wrongly ennobled the paedophilic impulse, and that this was the moral point that Homes was consciously making. There is nothing here of Humbert's occasional timidity and crippling shame: here there is simply a warped mind assured of its own rightness: indeed, narrator Chappy calls his preoccupation an 'art', an art in which he is instructing a correspondent, an unnamed nineteen-year-old girl apparently intent on seducing a twelve-year-old boy. The sexual attraction to childish bodies and the revulsion towards maturing physicality is seen here conversely and more starkly as a matter of power - Chappy simply wants power, and a violent power, over the unformed female body - and, via some moments recalling Hannibal Lecter, as a matter of cannibalistic greed. For much of the book, Chappy peddles the line that children are complicit in paedophilia (and thus bear some of the responsibility) -'I have long suspected that youth knows more than the sugar-glazed gap between mind and body it allows to articulate' - but finally admits that this is a dishonesty:
Although undoubtedly I've not said it before, I do firmly believe it is up to an adult to ignore the attempted flirtations of the young... it doesn't necessarily mean that she really wants it or even knows what it is. She is in fact compelled by the culture.
But the point is, he won't respect this, he doesn't care, he still goes ahead and seduces the child, and his moral corruption is entire.

Everyone in the group agreed with me that, contrary to the claims of its detractors, the book did thus have a deeply moral core, but felt that the fact that it was so very unpleasant was problematic. As Ann said, the true test of a book is whether you can actually read it, and she had been so drearily revolted that she gave up halfway through; Doug and John both said that if they hadn't been reading it for the group they would definitely have given up too, and I suspected that maybe I would have been the same. In fact, Ann said, Lolita is horrifying and yet because it's so beautifully written (and avoids the graphic) it carries you right on into the horrifying situation it depicts, and Doug strongly agreed. (Jenny said that it made her wonder about the mentality of writers who can sit down with such horrible material and then get up and do normal things like make cups of tea and go about their daily lives and then get up next morning and start typing away again....!)

A somewhat critical attitude to the book and its author now emerged. Someone said that the pompous style was awful. I pointed out that it was the voice of the narrator, the paedophile Chappy, not that of the author. Homes writes elsewhere with very different voices, and Chappy's narration contrasts strongly with the teen-speak of his correspondent's letters; in fact, at the start of the novel he reports that his correspondent comments on his 'peculiar' style - '...did you go to school in England?'  - which identifies it as an aspect of his institutionalised decadence. I said I thought it was intended as a direct parody of Humbert Humbert's high literary style (there's an implied linking, I think, between such establishment-approved literary control and the establishment-excused desire for paedophilic sexual control). However, being such admirers of the narrative stye of Lolita, the others in the group weren't impressed by the stratagem, and Mark said that in any case he had read an interview with Homes in which she expressed surprise that people had seen so many parallels with Lolita in the book. I in turn expressed surprise at that, since there are several (to me) clear Nabokov references, such as a tennis game as seduction (as in Lolita) and the motif of dried butterflies.

There is a horrifying prison rape scene which someone now said they found gratuitous. I said, But doesn't the narrator (Chappy) comment precisely on its gratuitous nature: '...I wouldn't have even mentioned [it] except that I knew you were waiting for it, wanting it, had been wanting it all along.' He then goes on to tackle the reader further, suggesting that however disturbing she or he has found the whole narration, he/she has been sexually titillated by it. In this way the book goes one step further and implicates the reader (and thus the whole of society) in the moral degeneracy of paedophilia. People cried that the book was just too successfully horrifying to be titillating, though, with which I had to agree.

I said that one aspect of the book I hadn't got to grips with was the nineteen-year-old female correspondent's seduction of the twelve-year-old boy. It didn't for me have the ring of truth that (horrifically) Chappy's paedophilic activities had, and I wondered if this was because we are not actually meant to take it on trust. As we have seen above, Chappy is an unreliable narrator, happy to spin himself false justifications. He rarely quotes directly from her letters, filling in the story of her seduction in his own far more literary style and eventually justifying it thus:
Pretentious though it may be, I remain convinced that my interpretation, my translation, is a more accurate reflection of her state of mind, far exceeding that which she is able to argue independently.
When he does finally quote her at length it becomes clear that her motives for writing to him - which he has represented as simply those of a shared obsession - are quite different: it is him, Chappy, she is obsessed with, because of the fear that dominated her childhood and that of all the girls in her neighbourhood after his murder of the girl-child Alice (and by extension that of all girls because of all the girl-child murders), and her sexual dalliance with the twelve-year-old has been adolescent experimentation rather than the sinister adult-child power game that Chappy has portrayed. An earlier clue perhaps is the fact that Chappy presents three different (alternative) sexual scenarios when relating the girl's first arrival at the boy's house. In other words, he has been injecting his own paedophilic fantasies into her situation, using her as titillation, and, rather than confronting the damage he has done to her life (and to that of all girls), he has  desecrated her further.

Doug said though that he just couldn't understand why he should be attracted to her in this way, and want to correspond with her, since she was far too old for the narrator's paedophilic inclination. Doug wasn't convinced by the suggestion that she was the 'best' the incarcerated Chappy could get, and was anyway primarily a vehicle for a renewal of his fantasies and a parallel revisiting of the seduction and murder of Alice which (horrifically) he doesn't regret.

Mark now referred back to the horrifyingly graphic nature of the book. He pointed to the filmmaker Michael Haneke's concern with the desensitisation to violence in our culture, and his attempts to counter this by making films that bring back the true horror of violence. He said he thought that this book's project was the same with regard to paedophilia. Jenny agreed. What this book is about, she said, is that paedophilia is everywhere in our culture, and that actually it's really horrible - a summing-up with which I thoroughly agreed.

Someone asked, 'But is it really everywhere, this kind of really horrible thing?' Sometimes, while discussing this issue in the group (so many novels seem to touch on it), we women have laughed about the harmless flashers we encountered in our childhood. But this book reminded me of a darker side that it is sometimes more comfortable to forget: of the neighbouring child of my own age, five, who was abducted and then abandoned at the side of the road, after which she was quite mute; of my ten-year-old childhood friend who was raped and murdered (which tainted the whole of the rest of my childhood with grief and dismay and fear and lost innocence); of the time that my twelve-year-old sister was dragged into a lonely public toilet and only escaped by stabbing her assailant with her umbrella. Most of all, the horrors of this book, and Chappy's warped mentality, ring so true for me because they are the horrors which, aged six, eight, eleven, I sensed in the expressions of those men - and yes, it kept happening - who sidled up to me with clear intent on the prom and outside the school gates and in the lanes, sending me running pell-mell...

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Thursday, June 13, 2013


I've recently been concentrating on short stories again, and I'm delighted to say that two are to be published in anthologies from the brilliant Unthank Books. In the autumn, Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, published in aid of the Bronte Birthplace Trust and edited by the talented A J (Andrea) Ashworth, will come from this innovative and energetic publisher, and I was thrilled when Andrea asked me to contribute. (You may remember that Jane Eyre is shut up by her horrid aunt in the scary red room.) Unthank's yearly Unthologies have been receiving much acclaim - last published was Unthology 3, and Unthology 4 is due in the autumn. My story, 'Clarrie and You', will be in Unthology 5, due for publication next June.

It's made me very quiet, this short-story writing - clearly, I haven't been much on this blog for a while. I've always said that it's novel-writing that takes you out of life, and that short-story writing gives you breathers that allow you to stay in touch, but somehow this time it's been a real immersion. I have realised suddenly that I've hardly been out for the last few months without even noticing - whereas usually I'm going up the wall if I don't get out pretty often. It's true that I've had some family issues providing plenty of interest and entertainment  (and some great material for writing in the future!) but they haven't really been that time- or attention-consuming; I just seem somehow to have sunk right in there with the short stories. The only other thing I've been doing is growing plants from seed, which has felt like a very similar quiet, inward and nurturing process: oh, the excitement of sowing, the exhilaration when those first shoots come up, the unbelievable hard work of bringing the damn things in for the night to protect them and then putting them out again next day, day after ruddy day, the potting on (the tedious potting on!) - and then the utter satisfaction at the finished product.

One outing I did make was to the Bakerie in Manchester's Northern Quarter for the launch of Rodge Glass's new collection of stories LoveSexTravelMusik (Freight Books). He was supported by my fellow Salt author David Gaffney, who read from his new flash fiction collection More Sawn-Off Tales (forthcoming then but actually published today), accompanying himself on the guitar. They both read brilliantly and it was a great evening. Though I did feel a little strange and agoraphobic walking down the streets beforehand - just as I did the evening I ventured out to a 'Ballyhoo' evening to launch this year's 24:7 Theatre Festival, also in the Northern Quarter which seems, while my back has been turned, to have become rapidly the hub of Manchester's literary scene.

I took some photos at the Bakerie, too, of Rodge Glass:

and David Gaffney:

John and I did spend a fortnight in Wales at the end of May (which meant setting up a ridiculously complicated wick system to keep moist all those seedlings not yet big enough to plant out - really, at least with writing you can just take your laptop; I'm not sure I'll be doing this radical gardening lark again!), where the spring flowers were very late after our dreadful spring, but the bluebells were magnificent:

I had been invited to the award evening for the Women's Fiction Prize, so I left off writing and took the whole shortlist with me to read in Wales. It was thoroughly luxurious (the books are wonderful), and just what I needed to break through my introverted state. And then I was off to London and revelling in travelling once more. And the party was just fabulous...
I wrote about the shortlist here.