Monday, 22 February 2016

The Polite Approach by Moira Redmond

Where do we go from here?

The Polite Approach is an etiquette book written in the 80s by Moira Redmond, of the blog Clothes in Books. Have things changed since then? In some ways yes, in others, not much. It is an easy read, in a humorous style.
Nobody really needs to know how to address a bishop in a telegram - if they ever did. Her best advice is about conversation (see under "personal security and privacy"). "If someone asks you questions you are not obliged to answer" - questions like "Are you pregnant yet?" Her recommendation? "Looking very shocked and asking 'I can't believe you asked me that!'"

And don't dish out medical disinformation, or information about others' ailments that they didn't volunteer ("She can't eat cheese because..."). Don't live others' lives for them (unless, in my opinion, they are being conned by a professional).

"Anyone who laughs at you or sneers, or makes assumptions about you based solely on your name, accent or income is being very impolite, and is someone you need not bother with." Unless you sound posh, she says, in which people will assume you're rich, and this will make you popular. (In some circles! In others, it will make you very UNpopular, and the butt of people's jokes. Especially in the lefty 80s.)

One thing that really has changed is that we talk on the telephone far less. She reminded me how ghastly it was when people rang who hadn't even "got a first sentence ready". (So much for spontaneity, which was much praised at the time.) The people who rang when you were sleeping after a night shift - and told you off for being asleep at that hour. If you used a friend's phone for a long-distance call you were supposed to estimate the cost and reimburse them (I remember having to do this in a shared house, writing down all phone calls in a book... Did long-distance calls really cost that much?).

"You shouldn't be asked to conduct remote control conversations through the bathroom door." And something else I don't miss: the people who rang and asked you what you'd been doing when the phone rang. Why did it take you so long to answer? And then they monologued for two hours. People who phoned at work wanting a very personal discussion ("Oh, but I thought you had your own office!").

Answering machines had just come in: "People get frightfully worked up about these useful objects. Half the world thinks they're an abomination and not only refuse to use them but see it as an insult to be asked. The other half... are infuriated by people who won't leave a message." I was enraged by those who left an irritated message, adding their phone number as an afterthought in a rapid, inaudible gabble. I changed my message to say "Please leave a number SLOWLY." I then got sarcastic messages ("Was that slow enough for you?").

Social kissing was relatively new: "It has undoubtedly become an accepted social gesture... despite some people's horror and sneers..." Kissing, answering machines – wait till someone invents that frightful Facebook!

Redmond is helpful on dating, especially on the initial fiction that you are going to a movie because you want to see the latest blockbuster or art house product, and going for a meal because you're hungry or you've never tried Estonian cuisine... But then we come to "staying the night".

"If you wish to go home together that is not a question of etiquette, and you are on your own." Oh, Moira, that's just when we NEED etiquette! Back then night buses were few and we couldn't afford taxis. You leave the restaurant, after no previous discussion, no lingering looks or handholding (probably politically incorrect in the 80s) – does one of you say "Your place or mine?" Or should the woman, instead of saying brightly "Well, that was lovely - I must rush or I'll miss the last tube!" hover wordlessly while gazing into the bloke's eyes? Or should she say, "Well, what happens now?" Any suggestions gratefully received.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Fashion Crimes of the 20th Century

20s, 30s

Little girls’ skirts became very short – miniskirt length. In summer, they wore matching bloomers underneath (same material as the dress.) In winter, they wore bloomers and leggings – buttoned gaiters reaching from ankle to hip. These disappeared in the 40s, but the bloomers survived into the 50s. The very short skirts slipped down the class system until little girls begin wearing - gasp! - trousers in about 1965.

From the 30s to the 60s, women’s shoes had thin soles and were freezing in winter. They were designed for people who took taxis everywhere. You could wear galoshes over them, but there were no practical boots until the mid-60s. Older people were rather shocked by them, and thought the boots “kinky”.

I remember one contemporary who always put on hat and gloves to go to the Bodleian (Oxford University’s library); however, we free spirits thought that a touch formal. But I had been plagued by gloves, as an adolescent. They had to be worn or carried on all but the most informal outings; without them, it seemed, my station in life would not be apparent. Puzzled but biddable, I spent several years losing slimy nylon objects until eventually liberated by student life and common sense. (Penelope Lively, A House Unlocked)

Middle-aged women had a “best” outfit for the opera, a charity ball or the Palace: an evening dress with a long, full skirt, a draped or pleated bodice, and shoulder straps. They were frumpy, and weren’t kind to most 50-year-olds. The ladies still wore diamonds from the 19th century: rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, sometimes even a tiara.

By the 60s, all change – arms and shoulders were covered, and older ladies wore tailored evening dresses (short or long). There was nowhere to put the diamonds (which now didn’t look right), so bodices were covered in rhinestones, sequins or paillettes. The same kind of dress (sometimes sleeveless) was worn as concert gear by singers, well into the 70s. I remember waiting impatiently for them to catch up. Now women singers and musicians are chosen for their looks and wear barely-there dresses. I’m not sure this is an improvement.

Despite mod and miniskirts, most middle-aged women didn’t even buy new clothes, and still wore thick wool coats and ageing hats. But some went misguidedly overboard for the “dolly bird” style, with minidresses and white knee socks.

The top of the minidress was modest and puritanical with a high neck, long sleeves and a white collar and cuffs. The skirt showed your pants when you were standing up. The following year girls wore the dresses as shirts over trousers.

In the late 60s some adults suddenly decided to “move with the times”, grow sideboards and their hair long, and wear white turtleneck shirts with a dinner jacket (if men). Women adopted the fortune teller look. It wasn’t an era for dignity or tailoring. Some unfortunately stuck like that.

Little old ladies in Peckham wore a uniform: turquoise waisted knee-length raincoat from M&S, American tan tights, shoes. In winter, their legs were cold as they didn’t wear trousers, or boots. And their skirts were too short.

An outfit I wore briefly: afro hair; big russet cardigan in tweed effect yarn, with a belt; crimplene A line midi skirt diagonally striped in navy and white. We’ll pass over the home-made calico smock and blue snakeskin clogs...

Teachers wore a pudding basin haircut, and a corduroy dress with wide short sleeves, a big collar, and a yoke across the bust. They wore the dress over a shirt.

Conservative people took up hippy fashions and tamed them: psychedelic robes became lurid maxi dresses.

It was quite a milestone when people of our generation started wearing suits – it seemed like selling out to The Man.

Professional women wore suits with short-sleeved jackets (especially in yellow or lilac – they hung on too long among MPs).

Stylish hats were plonked onto long hair – hats need an updo.

An outfit I wore briefly in the 80s: I took a YHA sheet sleeping bag, cut off the top and bottom, cut some “armholes” and sewed up the “shoulders”. I then dyed it French navy. I wore it over a gathered broderie Anglaise petticoat (also home-made) with a belt. A Bananarama felt hat went with it.

More extreme fashions.

If You Want to Get Ahead...

For most of the 20th century, middle class men and women wore hats out of doors. Going bare-headed meant you were very Bohemian, or too poor to afford a hat. Working class men wore caps; working class women wore shawls over their heads. During the war and after, women wore headscarves tied under the chin.

In the 1960s, change was in the air and the middle classes got the idea that society was now classless: Cockneys became celebrity photographers, and young people copied the way they spoke. Somehow ditching hats was part of this new egalitarianism. If you had no hat, you couldn’t raise it or tip it to anybody. And forget about being respectable!

Oddly, at the same time broad-brimmed hats (with a long colourful scarf around the crown) became a fashion item. These quickly ossified into a respectable hat for the kind of lady who had never shed the headgear - in beetle green, orange or chocolate.

In the 70s women wore woolly cloche hats in cold weather, or safari hats (based on the solar topee); in the 80s they wore saucer hats at weddings and the races, but universal hat-wearing was over.

For several decades, people went mainly bare-headed. They got wet in the rain, and cold in winter, their hairstyles were ruined and the sun got into their eyes. By the noughties, the only hat options for men (on sale at roadside stalls or in newsagents and hardly a fashion item) were baseball caps (unwearable by the middle classes because American) or ski hats (what the Americans call beanies).

Men have more hat opportunities now. In the 60s it was quite cool to tie a headscarf at the back of the neck, but sadly headscarves of any kind have never returned.

More clothes here.

The Way We Wore: Extravagant Fashions

Madame de Pompadour: small hair

There are fashions that get more and more extreme until they vanish. Hair gets higher and higher, crinolines get wider and wider – but you wonder how people lived with some of these. A dance dress so long that you had to pick up the skirt and hold it over your arm?
Leg o’ mutton sleeves 1830s, 1890s, 1930s Sometimes called gigot sleeves - that's French for leg of mutton.

Big hair and hats 1910s These huge dos were constructed over pads made of the wearer's own hair. You kept the combings from your (waist-length) hair in a "hair-tidy", and made it into what were called "rats". Lovely!

Big hair 1770s The heroine of the novel Evelina describes having her hair curled and done up over a cushion that sat on the top of her head – and then covered with white powder. I don't know why this hairstyle is blamed on Madame de Pompadour.

Beehive hairdo 1960s Terrible tales were told of women who never took their hair down and ended up playing host to some six-legged friends. The same stories were told of ladies from the 18th century. Early 60s hairstyles were ludicrously labour-intensive - the setting on rollers, drying and then back-combing took hours. You wore a chiffon scarf over it to keep the rain off - anything heavier, like a hat, would have squashed it.

Crinolines reached new breadths in the 1860s.

Panniers 18th century They're called after the saddlebags you use on your bicycle (or horse or donkey). You end up with a skirt shaped like the back of a sofa.

Platform shoes 1970s (and 16th cent Venice). Groovy!

Corsets made waists smaller and smaller from the 1830s on (though tales of 19-inch waists are exaggerated, say fashion historians).

Miniskirts 1960s I know they’ve been back several times, but they've never been so short as they wre in the late 60s. You had to adopt a new way of sitting – knees together, feet apart. If you dropped anything you had to curtsey to pick it up again. And you couldn't bend over at all.

Trains Late 19th century You had to drape them over your arm when you danced. Sometimes they had a loop on the hem that you put your little finger through. You also had to cope with a reticule hanging from your wrist.

Stiletto heels and pointy toes 1960s, early 00s, 15th century.

Boys' shorts, or "short trousers" were originally teamed with thick wool stockings, and came down to the knee. In the 60s/70s, when hems rose and girls’ shorts became tiny, prep school boys’ shorts did too and the poor lads suffered from hypothermia.

Opera-length gloves In the late 1800s, shoulder-length kid gloves were worn with evening dress. At dinner, you removed the hand bit and tucked it into the arm bit. Their status was defined by the number of buttons.

Fontange: In the early 18th century, fashionable ladies wore a “fontange”, a lace and ribbon covered framework that stuck up from the top of the head. “Technically, fontanges are only part of the assembly, referring to the ribbon bows which support the frelange. The frelange was supported by a wire framework called a commode.” (Wikipedia) According to fashion historian James Laver, a later variation was to tilt the framework forwards like a unicorn’s horn. The whole shebang morphed into the mob cap, and as hairstyles expanded, so did the caps. Eventually the cap perched on top of an outrageous padded updo.

Did these offensively decadent fashions really exist during the French Revolution: a red string round the neck, and a hairstyle à la guillotine? Parisian women really did add straw to their coiffures, inspired by mad Ophelia in a visiting English production of Hamlet.

More clothes here.