Tuesday, 10 January 2017

High Standards

Elegant, soignée . The crisp, crêpe-de-Chine shirts. The sculpted hair. The scent. Descriptions of encounters with Anita Brookner nearly always refer to her uncommon appearance. When I met her she was wearing a startling scarlet jacket and a white blouse.

Photos of Anita Brookner show her in a range of costumes. There are the pullovers, probably her notion of 'casual':
There are the Francophile feminine jackets:
There are the dresses:
And there are the more masculine jackets, with padded shoulders, in the style of the time:

Brookner was aware of how different she was. In A Start in Life we see Ruth Weiss, in Paris, learning to be well dressed. And an essay on clothing in the London Review of Books, from 1982, offers, like many Brookner pieces, as well as an excellent summary of the arguments, one or two personal observations:
A failed dandy himself, [Baudelaire] appreciated signs of effort in others; the loose, the slipshod, the revealing drove him to bitterness, and the unbound hair of his mistress was only too closely associated in his mind with her venality. ‘La femme est naturelle, c’est-à-dire abominable.
Baudelaire’s dictum and the remedy he devised for this sadly fallen creature have become articles of faith for the fashion designer, or had done until recently, when the desire to be natural (c’est-à-dire abominable) led to extremes of both dressing and undressing, the two modes sometimes bewilderingly interchangeable. A five-minute survey of my immediate community reveals a preponderance of blue jeans, dungarees, pullovers, tennis shoes, boots, shawls, odd waistcoats, long skirts, plaid blouses ... To be sure, academic gatherings are not noted for their elegance, but if, as Alison Lurie tells me, clothes are signifiers, or signs, or if, to put it another way, dressing is discourse, then there are several messages to be read here that would have spelled out disquieting news for Baudelaire. The first is that all degrees of seniority are obliterated in the desire to look as young, as carefree, as natural as possible. The second is that these unreconstructed dressers, although brought together for purposes of work, some of it extremely recondite, are dressed for play, both urban and rural, as it might be for busking or the tending of a smallholding. They look extremely cheerful, extremely healthy and extremely relaxed. The third message is that a conscious and widely shared act of regression has taken place, and that women and men can now array themselves for certain tasks in the grown-up equivalent of rompers and that their errors of taste will be presented as calculated and disarming. The fourth message is that the rules have disappeared. The fifth message is that there does not seem to be the slightest awareness of the purpose of dressing: there is no disguise, no self-consciousness – and certainly no shame.
Brookner's sartorial formality is surely related to her sense of style in other arenas, not least in her prose. It was, to repeat, as ever a personal matter. It was about getting by on style alone. It was about how form was going to save us all.


A few additional points. 1) Brookner and scent. In A Private View George Bland wears Eau Sauvage. I wore it myself for some years, and for me it still richly evokes that Brooknerian time. 2) Woody Allen: I am gratified to find in the above LRB article a mention of Annie Hall.

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