THE UNLOVED JACKET

I was thinking that there is a very small selection of clothes styles that really suit you, especially if you are a small woman like me. Fortunately I have an oval shaped face, so almost every style of neckline suits my face – but square or boat shaped necklines make me look shorter, so I avoid them.

I suit:

straight skirts, with a waistband, a back zip, and a slit or pleat in the back seam, coming to 2 inches below my knee;

shift dresses, ideally with a V neck and sleeves to just below my elbow, fitted to the body and the back seam opening at the hem

trousers that have a waistband at the actual waist, darted to fit, zip in front, straight legs narrowing to the cuff, no pockets or any design details.

Long, straight jackets

classic coat, long enough to cover the underneath outfit

short, rounded edge jackets worn with a long skirt

Channel type jackets

V necked fitted T shirts and jumpers.

Any frills or flounces, or ‘pretty’ accessories look ridiculous on me

Because I want attention on my face, I generally wear shoes and boots in black leather.

I like scarves which I wear knotted round my neck with the ends dangling down to give an elongated look.

I am able to wear quite dramatic jewellery and not be over-powered by it.

Pleats, gathers, waist details make me look fat.

I’ve been thinking about this because some years ago I bought a brown and white randomly patterned suit. The skirt was made up of 6 gores which widened at the hem, topped by a jacket with a large wide  collar and adorned with two pockets at the hips. I was never terribly comfortable in it and the skirt was first to go. I bought some fine brown wool with a tiny white stripe in it, and made a shift dress as I have described above, The dress was fine, and it went with the jacket (just about.) The trouble was, I could always find an alternative in my wardrobe which suited the dress and me better than the jacket, ie a winter white very long and straight knitted alpaca coat/cardigan; a mushroom coloured long coat/jacket worn with a silk scarf that contained both the brown and the mushroom. I came to really dislike the jacket. I wear my clothes in rotation (obviously I can decline what the wardrobe offers me, but I rarely do,)  and it seemed to me it was no time at all until the unloved jacket was waiting reproachfully to be worn.

Last week I snatched it off its hanger and stuffed it in a carrier bag for the charity shop. Such a relief to be rid of it. Everyone makes mistakes, the saying goes. This was definitely one of mine.

THE DOG BLANKET DRESS

IMG_2144THE DOG BLANKET DRESS

Persons of my former acquaintance (low life types of feeble intellect and little discrimination) have occasionally had the temerity to suggest that yours truly is a silver-tongued deceiver who could with artful cunning apply a positive spin to any chosen subject, or conversely ruin some poor innocent’s reputation with a few well chosen, carefully planted, deceptively mild phrases.   You, gentle reader, being an intelligent person of taste and sound judgement, know that this accusation is a foul calumny, and that your humble correspondent deals only with shining truths and accurate analyses.

It has occurred to me however that I may have – inadvertently – presented you with a picture of myself as an accomplished and successful dress maker.     In this scenario, completed projects are  disgorged by my sewing machine with all the ease of an aeroplane ejecting parachutists.   According to this legend, emerging from my sewing room is an unending triumphant procession of elegant dresses for me;  silk dresses for my  granddaughters, velvet capes, quilts to go on their beds, pretty pyjamas and dressing-gown for all the ladies of the family, kilts for the boy, handbags to order, curtains, cushions, throws and mats for new houses, aprons for all and so on, all articles greeted with cries of delight by the grateful recipients.

Well, yes.   But we can all make mistakes; it’s neither easy nor invariably successful.

The week I’ve been making myself a cream wool dress.

I’ve adapted the pattern to my exact requirements – it’s a shift, very plain, with a zip at the back.   I’ve made three versions;  a brown wool with faint white stripes;    a greenish plaid;    and a sleeveless red linen version.   They’re all reasonably satisfactory and I’ve worn them a lot.

I had bought the cream all wool tweed fabric at a wonderful mill in Oxfordshire while staying with my friend Elizabeth nearby.   I did wonder if it was the right colour, weight and texture, but concluded it would be OK and proceeded to make it up into a classic shift, with a V neck and three quarter length sleeves.   It took ages.

I am NOT pleased with it.

The material looks like a dog’s blanket.    When I press it, there is an aroma of sheep.   The material is several shades of yellowish cream away from the winter white I need.   Although exactly the same as earlier models, it makes me look fat.   I’ve fiddled endlessly with it, and still the neck won’t sit right.    Although I know that the shoulders and arms are both exactly the same length, the way it sits on me it looks as if one sleeve is longer than the other.   It’s a DISASTER, darling.

I consider taking it to my lovely craft group and lamenting my failure to them.   They are all proper ladies.   They wouldn’t laugh.   They’d all do their best to help and encourage me.   Plus, one of their number is that magician, Alison, who can make anything out of anything and the insides of whose garments are as beautifully finished as the outsides.    But I’m sick of the thing.   I don’t want to work on it, talk about it, even think about it any more.

You can generally incorporate anything into your wardrobe, even if in its basic state it doesn’t suit you, by judicious selection of things to wear with it.   After extensive, time-consuming and messy trials, I discover it only looks tolerable with one garment – a very long, lean-line, creamy white knitted alpaca coat/cardigan (purchased from the Alpaca shop on the A 22.)   The reason this suits it is because it HIDES most of it.   With a black and cream silk scarf (a gift from Nan Wylie) to give vertical emphasis and conceal the neckline, and a cream necklace of biwa pearls, made by Joanna and gifted by John, plus black leather boots and black leather gloves (bought in Biarritz) it looks tolerable.

However it only looks OK if I keep the coat on.    This combination is too hot for most interiors, and not warm enough for outdoors.   The coat is too long to wear anything over it.   In addition, though I’ve lined it, it’s itchy.   Basically, it feels like you’re wearing a hair shirt.

The white knitted coat has shoulder pads, and as I wear it with other things I need to retain them;   they are not detachable.      The  dress has shoulder pads which I included in a vain attempt to make the neck and shoulders look OK.   They are inside the dress, attached to sleeves and shoulders and between the fabric and the lining.   To remove them would require a major reconstruction.   In consequence, the outfit looks like something General Patten might have worn.

I present myself in my entire ensemble to my husband who looks at me cautiously.   He can see I am not happy.    He is deceived by the outer accessories and assures me that it is fine.   I remove the coat and scarf and I see him hesitate.   Then he says it’s not too bad;  I’ve spent a lot of time on it.    I can see he’s looking at my derriere.   He says, maybe it’s not the most flattering garment you’ve ever made…   can you take it in around the hips?   I think, what he actually means is, it makes your bum look HUGE, and I feel, with frustration and fatigue, positively tearful.

John takes me out and we buy a grey dress and jacket.

So what should I do with the Dog Blanket Dress?   No self respecting dog would have anything to do with it.

WINTER WARDROBE

We’re heading into Winter now.    I love the changing of the seasons.

One day, it seems we’re in summer:  bare legs, sandals, dusty air, the grass dry underfoot – and then one morning you go out and sniff, canine fashion and there!   You can smell Autumn, far off but still coming inexorably onwards, cool, damp, slightly smoky.   My spirits always rise.

After Autumn, Winter, and with it the enticing prospect of withdrawing into private space;  the sitting room with its lamps on and the fire burning;  a pile of books;  scones and tea;  peace;  time to recharge the batteries.

Then there’s the wardrobe switch.   By September I’ve had enough of the flimsy clothes we brought out with such anticipation a few months ago (and this year have actually worn) – the strappy T shirts, the linen trousers, the silk dresses, the cotton blouses.

I physically move some of my clothes from one room to another over a couple of days, switching 6 or so at a time.   You take out the cool climate clothes with mixed reactions.   Some may have been purchased late last season and never worn.   You’ve forgotten all about them and greet them with excitement.   Others you haul out and wonder why you didn’t fling them out last year and dither whether to discard them now, or put them in the ‘wearing’ wardrobe and see if they will still ‘do’.   As you bring out the winter clothes, you match them up, seeking new combinations, and making mental lists of which new accessories – leather boots, a sweater, a new scarf, will give a little fillip to your collection.

This is a serious business indeed!   My birthday is in December, so I’m a winter woman.   In cashmere, tweed, wool, leather boots and gloves, perhaps a fur hat, I feel most comfortably myself, so perhaps it’s just as well I live in Britain, and can wear these clothes practically the whole year!

FANTASY MAGAZINE

FANTASY MAGAZINE

For the past year I’ve subscribed to Sew magazine, but I won’t be renewing my subscription.

The cover of the latest edition features a girl in an unflattering dress with a shrug jacket of the kind that you know will neither be comfortable nor stay in place, and a child in an unattractive dress and cape.   It also has pictures of a reversible tea cosy;  a hand embroidered cake ribbon, and 25 Christmas articles.   Ugh.   I wouldn’t give any of those things house room, let alone waste time making them.

You can bet your computerised sewing machine that if a dress looks ill-fitting and badly cut on the model it’s going to look a complete mess on you.   What on earth would you want with a reversible tea cosy?   Or indeed a teacosy at all?   I hate old, stewed, tepid tea.   If you don’t drink it while it’s still hot enough, throw it out and make fresh.    Similarly with embroidered cake ribbon.     Are you going to use the same one year after year?   And 25 Christmas articles?  As if we didn’t have enough already.

But the final insulting straw  is a closing page article, part of a series by Anthea Turner, badly written and boringly executed.    Does this magazine for a moment suppose that its readership is going to accept Ms Turner as an example of good taste, good behaviour, intelligence, a model of a successful home-maker?   If so, it’s sadly mistaken in this (about to be ex) reader.    I wouldn’t dream of wasting any time whatsoever on anything even associated with Ms Turner.

It’s easy to criticise, but what would I like to see in the magazine?

I think I’d like it to concentrate on sewing for wardrobe.   I’d like for example a series of articles, with well fitting pattern, on dresses, from winter woollens this month, party dress next month, wedding guest outfit in June ,summer dress in August.     I’d like it to do a series on lingerie  and night attire, as the catalogues call the category, – pretty, lacy camisoles and slips in silk, mohair dressing-gowns for winter, men’s easy to make pyjamas.   I’d like it to offer say 12 patterns from the commercial books per month, with discount.    I’d like it to have an item for sale every month at a good price, perhaps a scissors set, a book, a dummy…   I’d like it to take one fabric per month (offered at discount)  and show 6 different looks from it – say, for example a white spotted voile.   You could have a full skirted sleeveless dress;  a dressing-gown and pyjamas;  a child’s dress mixed with lawn;  a ladies blouse;  a cotton dress with sleeves and yoke of the lawn.   Or say an ocelot faux fur fabric would lend itself to a child’s coat; a hat and scarf;  little girl’s coat with collar and muff;  a woman’s gilet;  a woman’s velvet serape lined with the ocelot plus hat; a cushion.

You could do a series of technical instruction: how to fit a zip;  do a buttonhole, and then garments that featured that work.

You could ask readers to send in photographs of their work and there could be a prize awarded for the best each month.

Although it would be a sewing magazine, you could have one easy article per month on knitting or crochet – so, a baby’s layette;  a mohair shrug for a woman;  a crocheted fine wool baby’s shawl, a pet’s crochet blanket.  You would always try to offer the materials and pattern.

You could do a monthly quilting picture – let’s say of a seasonal flower, which could be assembled into a large quilt or used individually.   Similarly you could do one a month embroidery project – flowers in a square perhaps;  initials;  the leaf of a tree, so people had the option of doing a one off, or of collecting them into quilt, wall hanging or bedspread.    Ideally these motifs would also be usable in clothing patterns, say the flower element on a quilted waistcoat.

In these times of recession, you could show how to make some hit of the moment fashion item much more economically;  and you could  show how to remodel a second hand or older garment into something new.

Someone could review a different sewing machine each month, sewing the same things – a sample with buttonhole;  a piece of machine embroidery;  a cuff decorated with automatic stitches;  a piece of quilting, so over the months you could see the comparisons.

But nothing ‘twee’.   No crinoline ladies.   No handkerchiefs embroidered with Mother.   No napkin rings with people’s initials.     No tea cosies, egg cosies (? You just eat the egg), no mysterious things divided into fiddly sections for putting bread into, no toilet rolls covers in the shape of a lady,  no sausage dogs, no bell pulls, no cushions with witty messages.     We wouldn’t ask Anthea Turner for any contributions.

I’d buy it.

(If any gentle readers care for any of the above articles I’ve disparaged, then you should just dismiss this blog as a rant of personal prejudice.    Having good taste (and who’s to say what is and what is not; it’s all personal preference) – having good taste doesn’t matter.    Having good character does.)

WEARING YOUR TRUE COLOURS

Wearing your true colours.

I’ve been sewing.   Many (indeed most) of my clothes need taking in and since I’m at the machine anyway I’m taking the opportunity to change things that while not quite right for me were not perhaps worth altering on their own.   I find there is an optimum length for a skirt for me;  a blouse or jacket too short or too long doesn’t flatter, and sleeves are best an exact length.   So I’ve been chopping  and fixing and so far I’m pleased with the results.

I dislike waste so I also enjoy melding two garments together – making a plain black dress for example into one with lace yoke and sleeves from a blouse of which I’m tired.   Although on the other hand, I do not readily give up garments and I still wear coats for example that may have been bought about twenty years ago.

I go on and off colours too.   Some colours – peaches, orange, yellow, camel, mustard, most greens – I never wear – they make me look sickly.   But even among the colours that do suit me, I go on and off them over the years.

Black is my all time favourite.   It’s dramatic;  it highlights the face, and it suits me.   I look good at funerals, although I accept this isn’t the purpose in going.   I also suit white and combinations of black and white.   (Cruella de Vil’s wardrobe would do me very nicely.)   Beige, really stone, is another great basic for me, and these three colours mixed with some grey and red could provide a whole wardrobe and I would never get bored.

But other colours in my repertoire come in and out of favour.   Brown does suit me but I don’t often fancy it.   Navy blue is also a colour I can wear, and I notice it creeping back in after years in the wilderness.    Then the accent colours – pinks, purples, pale blues, some greens – I do wear these but I tire of them quickly.   And I’m always hunting for particular colours slightly ahead of their being fashionable.    You can be sure if I’m scouring the high street for purple, (unsuccessfully), by the next season every shop will be awash with it.

Then there’s the colours and styles you occasionally fancy, but which are like an unsuitable lover – they’re great in the imagination, but the reality is not good for you.   I love those subtle grey greens, and soft mid blues but they just make me look washed out.   Prints, however pretty, I find rarely flattering.   I’m for bold blocks, take it or leave it colours, not compromising mixes.

I can admire very pretty dresses, with frills and ruffles and ribbons and lace.   I can really quite covet them.   But when I try them on I just look ridiculous, like an eagle masquerading as a parrot.   I guess I’m not a pretty, gentle, dainty lady and there’s no use pretending!

Black velvet cape, ermine trimmed, hood drawn up, battle dress and sword concealed underneath, anyone?   I’m sure it would look just fine on the catwalk, and you could have a snorting war horse just for the drama of it close behind.

THE GREAT MIGRATION

It was a beautiful scarf.   I found it in an odd, Far Eastern Emporium in Fife, shining out of a heap of inferior fabrics.   It was made of some lustrous, lovely material, light but warm, perhaps some mixture of cashmere and silk, expertly woven and hand finished.    The colours were restrained – shades subtly intermingling of cream, beige and grey – my kind of colours.    There was only one of it.   It was everything I like – luxurious, understated, individual, elegant, expensive.    For a mere wisp of fabric, it was prodigiously expensive.   The scarf called out to me as though it knew it was mine.   I did not buy it.

But before we left Scotland that year, I took my husband there.    The scarf was still unsold.   He bought it and gave it to me.    It was and to this day remains the most expensive scarf that I have ever owned.

I took it home and was delighted with it.   The scarf went with every outfit I had envisaged.   I bought a few more for good measure.    It suited my face.   It added about £100 to the cost that would be guessed for every outfit it graced.     I folded it carefully into my scarf drawer, the pearl of my collection.

Weeks passed into months.    I wore all the outfits.    I took out the scarf and tried it on.   It always looked terrific.    I just never wore it.   I knew then that it would need a special occasion to call it out of its box, and I was content to wait.

John’s venerable Aunt, a lady ‘of the first degree’, beloved by him, valued by me, died in the fullness of days.    She had been an elegant lady and I hoped to look my best in tribute to her.   As I packed, I laid out the scarf.   Under my blacks, it would lighten my dress, so I did not cut so sombre a figure at the post funeral reception.   Yet, come the day, the scarf did not appear.

I had not been in the best of order before we left, and the effort of the journey, plus some bug that we both contracted, rendered me quite poorly, and our hostesses, tender and lovely women one and all, had to go to increasing lengths to look after me.

So we arrived at the day before we return, when we visited my mother who had been in increasingly declining health in her care home.   I was in such a state of panic and fear as to how I would find her that I was barely able to dress.   My outfit was so plain, I thought it would depress my mother, so I snatched the scarf out of my suitcase and put it on without looking at it.

We took flowers and chocolates.   The road to where she lives seemed to be ten times as long as usual.   There was ice on the puddles.

My first impression, on seeing my mother – that impression that is not received through the visual eye – was that her skeletal frame is no longer connected by muscle or flesh so she appeared to me to be a heap of bones in tangled disorder, with a living head, disproportionately large, in the middle of this jumble, and great burning eyes.     She knew it was me as soon as I appeared, and these great eyes followed me as a baby watches his mother.   I was so distressed by her appearance that I was only just able to kiss and greet her and then fussed over trivial things, hiding my face.

Generally, when John and I present for an encounter where some emotional exchange will be required, he sets it up for me.   He makes sure I am comfortable;  that I receive the person I’ve come principally to talk with;  that there’s privacy, etc., and then he leaves me to it, either standing behind me, mostly silent, or watching from a discreet distance, or if it’s a trusted friend, leaving us to it.     But this time, God bless him, he did it all.   He talked valiantly about my mother’s health, the flowers we had brought, joked about the chocolates, our journey, the tribulations of the Arran ferry, on and on, an endless flow of easy small talk, while I gathered my wits.    Eventually I felt able to talk.

My father – may I meet him in the after life – blazed through our lives like a fiery comet with all its beauty and potential destructiveness, and in my youthful folly I had blamed my mother for not mitigating the fires of his passions.    But I had come to see – and now to say – that at last I had understood that though in my ignorance I had perceived her as merely a dusky asteroid trailing in his wake, in fact she had been a dark and lovely planet in her own right, who had exerted a powerful counter-balancing influence on his erratic orbit.    Life with him was precarious – though he gave us many gifts – but without her it would have been perilous in the extreme.

Facing her now, it appeared I had left it too late.     Her sentences did not connect from beginning to end.   Her replies did not apply to our questions.    She seemed obsessed by a large ornamental china dog and many of her remarks were addressed to it.    But I could  sense that she herself still sat behind the huge eyes that never left my face.

In previous conversations I have talked of things in our joint memories that she had been able to share in, even though her present memory was deficient.   This time, I talked of how we used to walk, Eugene and I and our parents, down the valley of Strathmore in darkness;  how I had loved the velvety night, sometimes bright with moonlight, sometimes black as Hades, and how we would see the Milky Way emblazoned across the night sky like a bridge of light.   I spoke of her childhood with her parents on Lewis, and of her siblings, Lewis, Mairi and Margaret, and Margaret’s daughter Sheena.   I spoke of Eugene and myself;  of our children, and her great grandchildren.   She listened with pleasure, as to a fairytale, and there was no connection to her memory at all.

Finally I found something she could take an interest in:  my scarf.   She and I had always been interested in fabric.   She fingered it and  admired it and I told her this was the first day I had ever worn it.

Previously we had taken her back to her room so we could talk in some privacy, but there was no possibility of doing that now.   One felt she would just disintegrate into dust if you tried to rearrange her.   All the while we were there we were annoyed by a disturbed woman who kept saying to John she knew all about us, all the tricks we were up to, the police had been called.    My mother, who would once have got very annoyed about this, watched it as though it were on the far side of the lake.   John bought us some respite by suggesting the woman go and fetch a policeman, or one of higher rank.

After about 45 minutes, some of my mother’s powers of speech returned.   We asked her if she needed anything, to which she made a very typical- of- her reply, ‘I have decided I should no longer bother my visitors with  my wants, so no thank you.’     She said to me that I had ‘ever been dutiful’ and now I had done my duty and come to visit her.   But I could see her in her burning eyes, and I took hold of her hands and said I had never come to visit her as a duty.   Then, three times, she said we had spent enough time with her and we should leave.   (This makes her sound cold and grudging, but she wasn’t:  in her day she was loving, sympathetic, tender, attractive, amusing, fun.)

Usually she says to me, ‘When will I see you again?’ but there was none of that this time.   I stood up and said to her, ‘I am going to leave you now.’    I pointed to the china dog.   ‘That dog is a friend.’    Then I took off my scarf.    My mother said, (again how she always tended to receive a gift), ‘I hope you are not proposing to give me that scarf.’   But when I put it round her neck and arranged it, she made no further objections.    I kissed her and said good-bye and walked away.    The deranged woman caught my hand and I said, God bless you too, my dear.   At the last point where I could see my mother, I looked back – she was still watching me, and raised my hand in farewell.    As soon as I passed out of her line of vision, I began to weep.

I left John to make his good-byes, thank the staff, unlock the door.   He parked the car along the roadside for me to recover myself.   In the sky were hundreds, if not thousands of geese, in a huge circling mass, in quantities I had never before seen together.   The air was full of their cries.    We watched in wonder as they circled round and round and in a little while they headed off North, skein after skein of them, some in small family groups, some more than a hundred strong.

Oh my mother, I thought.    It is time for the great migration.    Go North with the grey geese.

CLOTHES DO NOT MAKE THE MAN

CLOTHES DO NOT MAKE THE MAN

Most people who know me will already understand that I enjoy clothes.

On the hanger, what suits me – plain, straight, block colours – is very dull.    As I’m short, I want any detail to be near my face.     I like natural fibres – cotton, silk, linen, wool, velvet –  they need more care with laundry but they feel comfortable and luxurious and my preferred colours are black, white, beige and red.   I told you – dull.   I’ve never been much interested in shoes because I don’t want to draw attention to my horrible feet, so no Imelda cupboard for me.    Plain, black and leather (dull.)   I’m no bag lady either.   Can’t be bothered shifting my stuff from bag to bag, so generally I buy a man’s ‘handbag’ in Europe – plain,  black, leather.  (Dull).

What I’ve never been interested in is ‘couture’ (or what I could afford in that direction).   Firstly, I never wear any name or logo.  Why should I be a walking advert for them, and pay for it besides?     I  feel clothes are in the same category as wine, up to a point you get what you pay for, but a £250 bottle of wine, while better than a £25 one, is not really £225 better (unless money is no object.)  (  I have tried both. )  With clothes, once you’ve paid the amount necessary for quality fabric and a good cut, after that it’s all name and  fashion, and personally I’m not willing to spend a great deal on that.

In September 2010 I visited the Fashion Museum in Bath, and for my money the star piece was a navy  blue outfit by the late Jean Muir, circa 1975, so understated in its elegant cut that you could have stepped out in it today.     With my friend, Sandra  I once went to Harvey Nicholls, where the Jean Muir clothes were beautifully made, worth every penny if you could afford them (ruining my own argument), and the Vivienne Westwood creations were, I thought attention seeking (which is quite the opposite of elegant)  and of inferior construction considering what they cost.

If you see a woman who has clearly spent vast sums on her clothes, whose shoes and bag are hugely expensive advertisements for the manufacturer, and who looks as if her toilette has taken her two hours to assemble – well, frankly, it’s not a look to which I aspire.   Though clothes are fun, and you need them for warmth and decency, it is all in a minor key.   You don’t want to look like some bimbo whose main function is as a clothes horse.    Victoria Beckham is a surprisingly elegant woman, but she’s not a role  model I’d emulate.   Following fashion slavishly smacks of a lack of confidence, as if you only feel OK when protected by this glittering armour, fortified with labels.   You should also feel OK in your oldest  trousers and woolly top.   You don’t want to look like ‘a woman, dressed in Couturier X’s 2010 collection, who has spent the equivalent of a small country’s annual budget on today’s ensemble’.    You want to look like Roberta, well dressed as usual.

The Queen in her role as Monarch, displaying the nation’s wealth, often wears rather more jewellery than  might be deemed elegant if worn by other ladies.   Yet the Queen always looks greater than the sum of her jewels.    What is more, the Queen still looks queen in an old tweed jacket and a headscarf, and I have no  doubt looks majestic in her dressing-gown should anyone be privileged to see her so attired.

Some people’s lack of natural facility with dress is positively endearing.   Shirley Williams (now Baroness, I believe?) always had an untidy, slightly dishevelled appearance as if the assembly of her wardrobe defeated her – but she was an intelligent lady, spoke kindly and with sense.   Does it matter she’ll never make  the best dressed list?

Sometimes people get sent on courses, how to dress like a corporate crocodile, or be a true blue Tory  MP’s wife.   If they follow ‘the rules’ too closely, the result is not successful.   One’s dressing should express one’s individuality.   Even people who are frankly eccentric in their dressing – we can all think of some – while not being perhaps what might be called ‘elegant’, contribute to the gaiety of the nation.

National attitudes to dress also vary.   The French are famously elegant, and I think French women have fewer, but more costly, clothes.    Although I have bought clothes in America, on the whole what suits them doesn’t suit me.    And you absolutely do NOT want to be like a woman I observed in Boston, Massachussets.   She came rushing out of a changing room, exuding stress like a wounded animal oozes blood, and demanded of the hapless salesgirl, Does this suit me?   She was an angular, big boned woman, and the pretty, fussy outfit merely emphasised her lack of femininity.    The girl hesitated, and in that pause the customer perceived the true answer, and rushed back into the changing room, shouting about how unhelpful the staff were.   It was an extraordinary performance, and I felt like saying to her, Wear a sack until you learn to behave better.   Nothing about clothes is so important that it could justify this behaviour.

As for those gimlet eyed but vulgar people who examine us from top to toe, mentally labelling our clothes,  pricing our watches, assessing our handbags, they reveal the poverty of their values.    Don’t they know that WE are the valuable objects, and not the baubles we wear?

Incidentally, I’m not sure that my daughters  or daughter in law would entirely agree with me.     They are all adept at combining  inexpensive items with ‘investment pieces’ and have  indulged themselves from time to time with king’s ransom handbags, shoes or what have you.    With their own money, why not?    There are far worse things one can spend money on.

It’s amazing how old and dull I have become.   I could be my grandmother (herself a good dresser) delivering annoying little moral tales.     Clothes are fun and pleasurable.   It’s good to aspire to elegance.   But, though frankly I’m amazed to find myself saying this, in the end, it’s not the clothes that really matter.   It’s who’s wearing them.

Clothes DON’T make the man.

(The photograph at the top, by kind permission of my cousin Sheena Murphy, shows our grandmother, Margarett Macdonald, on Lewis.   My mother is the infant in the pram, and the young man is Lewis Macdonald, our uncle.)

WHO’s THE LADY

WHO’s THE LADY? 

The wedding of her brother having taken place, Elisabeth and I are discussing plans for her wedding next
year.   I am happy to report that the problems recounted below no longer apply and we can recommend a very helpful establishment to anyone in our area.

One day last February – house in chaos, noisy, cold – new boiler being fitted.    Wearing plaid new jacket (bought in Spain, 15 Eu) escape out with Carolyn.   It is a bright sunny day.

We go to  cake decorating shop in nearby town run by fát wheezing old lady who reminds me of a Pekinese in her unhealthy petulance.   Shop full of hideous, bad taste brides and grooms, highly coloured sugar flowers and illustrations of truly horrible looking cakes that you wouldn’t fancy eating let alone buying.   Carolyn buys a few neutral items for a forthcoming party – Carolyn has excellent taste –  while I look around.    I tell the woman I am to make a wedding cake but not until next year.     She snuffles around and then observes sourly, Of course a lot can happen in a year…   I think, and a pox on your head also, and I exit the shop.      I won’t be going there even if I do have a collapse of taste and want a Fat Controller man and a farmer’s wife bride plus flowers of no colour that nature ever intended to grace some attention seeking cake.

We  examine various coffee shops : I decline them all.

Carolyn drives on to Hassocks where we stop outside a Bridal shop.   Elisabeth is coming home in May and wishes to visit such a place with me but she has limited time.      Carolyn and I approach the shop where the window boldly displays, brilliant as a Belisha beacon, a crinoline dress of deepest red such as might have gladdened the heart of Scarlet O’Hara plus a pretty wedding dress.        The doors are locked but we can see a  casually dressed woman within.    Carolyn raps on the glass and summons her.    She unlocks the door  and her opening words to us are, I can’t see you now, a bride is due to arrive.    I’m for turning on my heel, but Carolyn says pleasantly we’d just like a look around.   Reluctantly she admits us but darkly informs us that we’ll have to take our shoes off.     The floor is wooden.    Our shoes neither have heels nor are they wet.   I’m tired by this time and rather shaky.   It’s not that simple taking my shoes off.   ‘Why do we have to take our shoes off?’ I demand of Carolyn.   Most Charming Saleslady in Sussex has her shoes on.    By this time,  Carolyn (may she be rewarded for her patience) has resorted to humouring me as you would  a fractious child.      Meanwhile, Most Charming Saleslady in Sussex is standing in the open door gossiping to friends who were passing.   I never move off the mat so she must be aware that I am a miasmic column of dark cloud at her elbow giving off occasional lightening flashes.    Carolyn kindly suggests that she fetch me a chair and brings me the dresses but the only chair is too heavy to move.   Most Charming Saleslady in Sussex gossips on.   She never so much as glances in our direction.   “Let’s go,” I say to Carolyn who nods in agreement.     “Excuse me,” I say to Most Charming Saleslady in Sussex.   As we step past her, through her two gossiping friends, she tutts in vocal disapproval.

As we drive off having asked several people on the street if this village has somewhere nice for
coffee and been directed to a Chinese restaurant which wasn’t really what we had in mind, we recall  that we visited an equally unimpressive wedding dress establishment in Lewes, not quite so unprofessional but just as unwelcoming, in the run up to Carolyn’s daughter’s wedding.   What is wrong with these places?   I would have thought two older matrons such as ourselves would be potentially valuable customers.    We’re unlikely to be fantasists trying on wedding dresses not yet having secured the groom.   We could be what we were, mother of the bride and friend sussing out the place to make an appointment to return with the bride to be; or we could be mothers of the bride shopping for bridesmaids’ dresses, or grandmothers looking for  flower girl or communion dresses.   Profitable business, all of it.   Well, Elisabeth and I won’t be going there.   These women, for some reason that I don’t understand, have an attitude problem.   It’s as if you ought to be grateful to be allowed to patronise their glorious establishment.     They should remind themselves hourly that you are the Customer and the Lady, and they are the salesgirl who is there to help you (and relieve you of your cash.)

We stop in Ditchling and fall into the arms of The General where we are graciously received and restored
with a cup of Lapsang Souchong and a delicious, moist, enormous Bakewell Tart shared between us (well, Carolyn has an elegant sufficiency and I have the rest) and come laughing out into the street where we discover that Carolyn has been given a ticket for illegal parking in spite of the fact that we are clearly displaying my Disabled Person’s card.     (This is entirely my mistake and stupidity:  I have forgotten to display the clock.)

In these places today, we got neither the service, nor the smile.   Oh, for the Japanese sales lady!

SERVICE WITH A SMILE

SERVICE WITH A SMILE  

I have outlined previously some of the difficulties encountered during a visit to Japan but where ‘service’ comes into anything,  Japan is vastly superior to anywhere else I’ve been.    Tips are not expected and should you offer one, generally refused.

We had requested wheel chair assistance on arrival at Narita (because it was in the middle of the night, body time) and this was offered with great care and courtesy so I felt like a piece of valuable china.    (A very good service was also offered at Heathrow.)

Elisabeth and Rob’s flat was a wonderful affair on the 27th floor of a modern tower.   After our outings but before their return from work, we would rest in their sitting room and watch the light change over the city, noting the daily alternation of the glorious Autumn colours.   As darkness fell, the lights would come on one by one.   Tokyo is a lovely city with many parks.   The building had white gloved doormen who would rush to help you with your luggage, or open the doors for you, and a receptionist who would receive messages and parcels.   

 

We went with Elisabeth to Comptoir des Cotonniers (http://comptoirdescotonniers.com)  where she had been thinking of purchasing a coat and suit for her working wardrobe.   Service here was excellent.    They settled me down in a comfortable chair.   The saleslady listened carefully to what Elisabeth had to say, and then directed her junior assistants to bring a selection of clothes, all the correct size and meeting Elisabeth’s brief.    At some point they realised that John was lurking outside, not wishing to enter a ladies’ clothes shop, and presumably recognised that if he were comfortable, we could spend more time in the shop.   “We have a seat for your father,” they said to her.   We answered he wouldn’t come in, but two of the young pretty girls were despatched and in that tactful but persuasive way of Japanese ladies would brook no refusal.    He was made comfortable in a corner.      Meanwhile Elisabeth was trying out outfits, with their accessories, my scarf, her own garments…     While she was dressing, the saleslady would talk to me.    I said my daughter was getting married.   “Oh,” she replied.   “In England?”    When I said, Yes, she asked, ‘Will it be like a wedding in  a film?’     Wedding in a film, I thought.   Does she mean, like in The Godfather?   Four Weddings and a Funeral?    Pride and Prejudice?    Anyway, Elisabeth decided to buy a camel coat and a black trouser suit.    The junior girls busily took away the rejected clothes, and the next in seniority to our saleslady wrapped the clothes up beautifully.   Elisabeth was asked for her card, and permission was sought to advise her when new collections came in and I am quite sure when she makes her appointment and goes there, they will have a selection that does suit her and is appropriate hanging up in the correct size waiting for her to try them on.    She was given a lovely mirror in a white leather case  ‘and one for your mother’.     Then they all accompanied us to the door, and bowed us out.     It’s a seductive experience, let me tell you.

You could argue that Elisabeth spent a fair sum there, and that this level of service would be forthcoming in many places, but our greatest service experience was not costly.   The lens of John’s glasses fell out into his hand but was fortunately not damaged.   However, a small screw was missing.   Rob and he attempted to fix them with a screw from a redundant pair of Rob’s glasses but only succeeded in disabling two pairs.    The receptionist downstairs produced an address for an optician open mid morning on  Sunday just around the corner, so we went there with me holding John firmly by the hand (no jokes about the lame and the blind please!)     We all went into the shop and John presented the problem.    We were all gathered in and all four of us relieved of our glasses.   We were seated.   We were served green  tea.   My glasses were returned to me, cleaned as they had never been cleaned before, and with the nose supports replaced.    Equal attention  had been  paid to everyone’s, and the  two pairs of damaged glasses were as new.   We gave our thanks and John asked for the bill.   No charge.   Four of them had worked for perhaps quarter of an hour.     We were horrified.    There was nothing for it but to smile and leave.    Elisabeth suggested we might take them a small gift which they  could all share – but it had to be wrapped.   Next day we purchased a box of French macaroons (a luxury there I assure you!) and duly returned to present it – mindful of Elisabeth’s instructions, John presented the gift with his two hands and the nod of the head that is the nearest Scots are going to approach to a bow.  He just offered it to the lady who came to meet him, but was quickly redirected to the master of the establishment.    They seemed pleased and enquired after our ‘son and daughter’ and ‘children’ – they spoke good English, so they do not seem to make a distinction for relatives by marriage, and I had noticed that the Empress was referred to as being ‘with her mother’, when the accompanying  lady was in fact the Dowager Empress and therefore her mother in law.

You encounter this level of service everywhere.   On the legendary bullet train, the beautiful Shinkansen, there are four staff (at least) – the driver, the guard/ticket inspector, and one or two people serving snacks who bow to the carriage on leaving and entering, and to each customer in each transaction.   John put one young girl thoroughly off by selecting an item himself from her trolley before the bowing was finished.   At the front of the train is a section with a moving map where young passengers can sit before a wheel and ‘drive the train’ and an attendant scours the train winkling out young future train drivers and their mothers.    (Some fathers looked on quite wistfully…)    And on one journey in Tokyo, using the ‘Oyster’ cards our children had given us, I could not walk through the barrier as mine needed topping up.    I was tired and getting a bit stressed.   A guard came and asked us to follow him to his little cubbyhole where he took John’s card as well and disappeared within.    When he came out he presented the cards to John (two hands presenting the card, with bow.)    “They get you home now.”    John thanked him and asked what we owed him.   He waved us on.      “Courtesy of Japanese Railway.”    

One shudders to think what the Japanese make of our levels of service.   Somehow I can’t see British Railways being so courteous.   I don’t think they give a toss whether you ever get home or not.

THE KIMONO

THE KIMONO

Over the years, during my visits to Japan, I’ve purchased various kimonos.   These have been bought second hand and being made of silk and often very beautiful, they represent very good value for money, as the Japanese do not seem to care for ‘second hand’.   I have asked John to photograph one of mine to illustrate the points I am making. 

 

 

So far as I can see, Japanese ladies wear kimonos only for weddings, ceremonial occasions, and high days or holidays.   Sometimes at some shrine where a festival is taking place you will see an attractive family, the mother in an elegant kimono, the girls and boys in traditional dress – but the father in Western suit.   (Although the man’s version of traditional garb is a surprisingly masculine garment.)

Traditionally, under her kimono a lady would wear a piece of silk wrapped tightly round the body from waist to knee (this gives rise to a typical short stepped walk that Japanese women still seem to adopt even when not wearing the kimono.)   Over this, and its collar visible in wear, was worn a white silk chemise, which would be easier to launder and would protect the kimono.   On her feet would be silk socks with a division between the big toe and the smaller ones, and sandals with a wooden platform.

The kimono is constructed from very narrow lengths of silk.    There is only one size therefore and the construction of each kimono is exactly the same (apart from sleeve length).   Any adjustments for height etc are  made in the dressing, when material is tucked into the obi (wide belt.)    If the kimono were worn as a dressing-gown by us, it would fit a woman of 5’8 – 10” without needing adjustment.

As ever in Japan there are subtleties beyond my understanding.   I think the actual design placed on the kimono was probably intended for wear in one season of the year, so the photographed example with the exquisite hand painted maple or acer leaves would be intended for use in Autumn.    The length of the sleeves denoted marital status, with shorter sleeves being for married women.   The garment is worn the opposite way to what we are accustomed to (ie it is worn left side over right, as a man’s garment is); and to wear it the other way signifies death.

The obi, that wide belt that holds everything together, also gave information on marital status, number of children etc , depending on how it was tied. 

Other accessories could include a narrow rope cord, tied around the obi; hair ornaments of mother of pearl; pearls worn around the neck; and a very small handbag with handles.

Often, as in the example, the design on a kimono is asymmetrical.    The inside is lined with silk, beautifully finished, and often a wash of handpainted colour matching  the outside decoration is drawn along the inner edges.    In examining our kimonos, they appear to be entirely hand-stitched, although i find it hard to believe that some of the construction is not done on machine.    It is easy to see why a new kimono in Japan is a very costly affair, running into thousands of pounds.

 

I own two at present.    The one shown is, I think, a particularly fine example, made of heavy ivory silk with a faint design woven into the fabric, and with hand painted Autumn leaves in an asymmetrical design.     I bought it in Kyoto on my first visit to Japan.   My other one had been intended for less special occasions, but it is also of cream silk, with an overall grey pattern of fans.     I have decided I am going to bite the bullet and alter them for wear, and make silk pyjamas to match.   I also own two short silk coats, originally intended to be worn over the kimono, in cream with silver and gold embroidery, and purple shot through with silver, respectively.    Other kimonos owned by the women of our family are a subtle blue and gold one, of Joanna’s; and I have just brought her an oyster coloured silk with an abstract hand painted brown tree design on it.    Elisabeth had a pale green one with a design of cranes that she wore when in Oxford, and now a pale blueish design; plus a short red one given her by a friend of Rob’s as a thank you for being his hostess.    Sarah, Rory’s fiancée, has a cream silk kimono hand decorated with spring flowers.   When Kerri was with us on our first visit, she chose a lightweight green kimono.

If one owned a kimono but did not wish to adjust it for wear, it could also be used as a wall decoration.

From our various visits to Japan a few elegant ladies in their traditional garb stand out in our memories.   Kerri and I, in Tokyo, saw a young woman get out of a taxi wearing a kimono of plain emerald green.      She was of such exceptional beauty and looked so stunning in her outfit with her black hair, that she called forth murmurs of appreciation as she entered the building.    In Kyoto, at the Zen gardens, a group of matrons enjoying an outing together, one of whom wore an elegant plain kimono in a cream colour, topped by a navy short coat whose only decoration was that, woven into the fabric, were designs of swallows.    And finally, with Elisabeth in Tokyo, having brunch in The Park Hyatt Hotel (used for Lost in Translation), a lady in an austere navy kimono, but whose obi was folded in such a way that when she turned her back, a life size paradise duck beautifully hand painted or embroidered, was displayed.

While the kimono is not really a practical garment for use in the Western world, apart from in the privacy of one’s own home, it is sumptuous to wear and uplifting to put on, being so carefully crafted and of such wonderful natural material and exquisite design.