Special Frocks

Jenny Turner

  • My Mother’s Wedding Dress: The Fabric of Our Lives by Justine Picardie
    Picador, 336 pp, £12.99, September 2005, ISBN 0 330 41306 6

Four years ago I promised myself that if I ever wrote a piece about fashion, I would put in the story of going to see my brother’s body and buying an outfit at the Aberdeen branch of Topshop directly before or afterwards, I don’t remember which. I went shopping supposedly to find a brown jumper to wear with the neat black skirt suit I had packed in my bag from London; the suit I had bought a couple of months before for a wedding, with the idea of looking like Mary Archer. In the event, though, I didn’t find the right brown jumper; I forget, come funeral day, what I actually wore. But I did get a nice skirt in Top Shop, brown tweed with crooked pleats. I did get a useful smock top, thin but cosy, nicely draped. Both items I wore almost solidly throughout that winter season, feeling a strange new swing in my step. Both items I have worn only a little less solidly every winter since.

My brother died in my mother’s house in November 2001, after years of unhappiness and physical pain. He had been sitting in an armchair, watching Eric and Ernie on the television; my father popped out to get a prescription filled. When he got back, he thought my brother was sleeping, but he wasn’t. He’d been enjoying himself, my father said, laughing at the sketch involving André Previn. He had, my father said, the bonniest smile on his lips. Which was why I wanted to go and see him at the chapel of rest, as such things are called where we come from: I wanted to be able to remember that bonniest of smiles. Which goes to show how little I knew about dead bodies and the practices of embalmers. The smile had given way to a forlorn scowl of universal disapproval. A dead person and a dead body are not at all the same thing.

Since that day, dead bodies and fashion have seemed to me specially linked, though that may be just a personal thought. Someone else might tell you that, suddenly back at their mother’s house for a funeral, they had snuck out to the pub, or gone running, or played some favourite music, loud. They might find an ex to have sudden sex with, as Nick Hornby had his hero do in High Fidelity. Different people relieve the closed-in misery of family and bereavement in different ways. On the other hand, there are literary traditions that make much of the visual and functional closeness of clothing and the body, ghosts and corpses and frocks and shrouds. And the modern writer who best understood and enlarged such traditions – Angela Carter – was also a brilliant fashion critic, for New Society, early in her career. ‘There is something eerie about a museum of costume,’ Elizabeth Wilson wrote in Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (1985), a study much influenced by Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger. ‘For clothes are so much part of our living, moving selves that, frozen on display in the mausoleums of culture, they hint at something only half understood, sinister, threatening; the atrophy of the body and the evanescence of life.’

Justine Picardie’s fashion memoir centres on the story of a dead sibling, in her case, a dead sister, Ruth. Ruth, as many readers will already know, was, like her sister, a writer and journalist on the fluffier end of London newspapers and magazines. She wrote about babies (she had infant twins), face creams, new clothes from Hobbs and Jigsaw, Birkenstock sandals, half-joking-half-not neurotic chocolate-eating followed by half-joking-half-not neurotic watching of one’s weight. In 1996, when she was just 33, Ruth was diagnosed with already advanced breast cancer. In 1997 she died of it. Between, she wrote a series of pieces in which she struggled to express what she felt was happening to her body, without breaking the decorum of her off-the-peg consumerist interests, her skittish, charming prose style. The pieces were funny, harsh, heart-rending, and readers responded to them hugely.

Justine Picardie has written about Ruth before, in journalism and in a commercially successful, rather peculiar book, If the Spirit Moves You: Life and Love after Death (2001), in which she visited psychics and mediums in an effort, apparently, to communicate with her dead sister (‘Good Friday in the year 2000,’ the book begins. ‘Jesus is dead and so is my sister, and I’m running on a treadmill at the gym’). Why, then, is she doing it again? What new thing has she found to say? One glib, unkind answer would be that she hasn’t. The present book includes a deathbed scene quite similar to the deathbed scene in the previous book – both have Ruth ‘claw’ in pain at her clothes, a detail that might not stick out so much were the word not a bit obtrusive in the first place. And a glib, unkind conclusion might follow: that this new book sets out at least in part to trade on the sympathy and voyeuristic curiosity expressed by so many readers for Ruth in her terrible illness, Justine in her terrible loss.

But what is Justine Picardie supposed to do? Most recently, she has worked for the fashion desk of the Daily Telegraph and for British Vogue. As her previous works show – there’s also a novel and an anthology of literary confessions – she has ambitions far beyond fashion journalism, and few inhibitions about writing personally. And the times we live in are completely enthralled by fashion, as the magazines prove, so obviously she should write a book about it. The observations of an insider who is literate, not slavish, sensitive to the unpredictable emotional resonances of her subject, sound like excellent things to have. Only a little less obviously, such a book needs to have the sister’s death in it somehow, it being, one would imagine, a major event in the author’s life. Tricky, but not insurmountable. Forewords, afterwords, interludes often come in useful. When you really think hard about getting the right form for something difficult, a way can generally be found.

It would, then, be nice for symmetry if Picardie’s book were a triumph; but, unfortunately, it is not. It’s a ragbag of half-finished autobiography, idle fashion-industry reminiscence, unchallenging portraits of top designers (Karl Lagerfeld, Claude Montana, Donatella Versace, Helmut Lang, Bella Freud), and, most disappointingly, under-researched, under-considered lit crit. These are held vaguely together by a meandering personal-quest narrative, the sort of thing that, if made into a television documentary, would entail many inconclusive cutaways to the author digging through cardboard boxes, squinting at her desk, recapping thoughtfully while driving her car one-handed down winding country lanes. A great many epigraphs, from Freud, Flugel, Sylvia Plath, appear to signal grand intentions. Some chapters also end with Trinny-and-Susannah-style tips: ‘solid black shoes with very pale tights’ look like ‘pigs’ trotters’, apparently, but ‘clothes are about self-expression’ so ‘feel free to ignore all of the above.’

The most straightforwardly entertaining parts of the book are those in which Picardie uses her press credentials to enter the dim, gothic world of European high fashion, with its skeletal, undead-looking patrons, its creepy family connections, its pale and constricted ingénues. She meets Donatella Versace, she of the fabulous parties and weirdly flat bleached hair, who has run the family business since the murder of her brother, Gianni, in 1997. Gianni’s face still stares down from the walls of the Versace palazzo, ‘a huge photograph, diagonally sliced in two’. She visits the Lemarié atelier in Paris, supplier of fancy feathers à toutes les maisons de couture. Drawers are stuffed with dead birds, heads on, wings folded, more than a hundred years old. She runs into Erin O’Connor, the swan-necked, unusually chatty British model, currently the face of Marks and Spencer’s Limited Collection, along with Twiggy. O’Connor recalls tearing her hands to bleeding shreds on an Alexander McQueen creation hung all over with razor shells; ‘Oh, MAJOR!’ the make-up assistants gladly squeal. She remembers having her waist laced in to 13 inches, then loaded with a crinoline. The next day, she was covered in bruises. Blood vessels all over her legs had burst.

And the family history starts off fine. The ‘mother’s wedding dress’ of the title turns out to be black wool, ‘a French cocktail dress from an expensive boutique . . . just above knee length, hidden bones within its bodice and waist’. It was bought to be worn at Hampstead registry office in October 1960; Picardie’s mother was a post-Sharpeville émigré from South Africa, 21 years old. Picardie’s father had also recently arrived from South Africa: the dress, Picardie says, was perhaps her mother’s ‘way of declaring that she was a chic European now’. The story continues through childhood by way of favourite outfits. A fairy costume turns out to be humiliatingly see-through. An orange outfit from the Beatles’ Apple shop is worn to the 1969 Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park. Her mother Picardie depicts as calm, stylish, sewing clothes for her girls from Vogue patterns, but her father sounds more volatile. Picardie remembers him dancing naked on the table and, later, jeering at his first-born (‘You’re a Tory! You write for Vogue!’). The marriage appears to be completely over by the 1980s. One jolly teenage moment has Ruth upstairs, playing at full blast a recording of Sylvia Plath, while downstairs her father plays, equally loudly, a record of Ted Hughes reading Crow. The wedding dress, poor chattel, suffers the usual fate of the special frock in a family of daughters: Justine borrows it, wears it to college parties, then somehow loses it, in that weird way one does seem to lose all one’s best items of clothing when young.

There are other anecdotes: Picardie’s South African grandmother was a founder member of the Black Sash; a ring her mother thought had once belonged to Charlotte Brontë turns out, after a trip to Haworth, probably not to have done so after all. But the book neither tells enough of a story, nor offers a strong enough sense of character. Aware, perhaps, of the problem, Picardie starts patching in material from other genres – the star interviews, the bits of history, the lit crit. ‘The Return of the Little Black Dress’ is one chapter title, another, ‘The Women in White’, yet another, ‘Scarlet Women’ (and yes, it seems, they really do eat men like air). Emily Dickinson’s white dress is noted (though not Gilbert and Gubar’s eerie aside about the unexpectedly enormous size of a frock which survives in Amherst), as is Emily Brontë’s disturbing dress sense (‘she chose a white stuff patterned with lilac thunder and lightning,’ and liked to wear huge gigot sleeves, long after they had completely ‘gone out’). But Picardie keeps her points – deliberately, I think – low-pitched and rather childish. ‘There is something unfinished,’ she complains, ‘about the clothes that F. Scott Fitzgerald dresses his heroines in . . . Maybe he saw it as a mark of his masculinity to leave out the details . . . Surely Zelda would have told us these things?’ That the revelation or otherwise of detail might be an artistic decision – that writers might be working to ambitions broader than those involved in writing the captions on Women’s Wear Daily – is not, for whatever reason, considered.

And yet, there is, surely, a fashion-history point – not to mention a flinty poem – in the very titles of the chapters in which Picardie tells the story of the illness and death of her sister: ‘Ghost Dresses’ and ‘The Gap’. The 19th century developed metaphor from colour, shape, texture; these days, we need only the name of a brand. (Not that branding, or low wages, or the politics of the global rag trade, can be said to figure much: ‘I seemed to be sleepwalking through the Gap global invasion,’ Picardie confesses, picking lackadaisically at a couple of dull facts from the corporate website. ‘I was dimly aware,’ she continues, ‘that it had been targeted by the anti-globalisation campaigns.’) The point of the Gap chapter is the black Prada-ish nylon jacket Justine informally inherited from her sister. The chapter on ‘Ghost Dresses’ trips through Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, ‘Don’t Look Now, and du Maurier’s own wardrobe (‘Daphne had a passion for her shirts,’ recounts her daughter-in-law, ‘and she was terribly particular about her trousers’). Then it turns autobiographical. ‘Who wore the first Ghost dress, my sister or me?’

Ghost, as female readers of a certain age will know, is a brand specialising in floppy, forgiving and rather pretty dresses, made from a washable, uncrushable proprietary fabric, much favoured by upper-middle-class women as they get older or get pregnant, or start putting on weight. (Liberty sells them in its Soft Dressing department – not at all to be confused with the sartorial despair William Leith has recently called ‘going floaty’.) Ruth wore them first, apparently, when she was expecting her twins, then later when she knew she was dying and was ‘spending money like there was no tomorrow’. She liked them, her sister says, because they disguised her swollen abdomen – ‘I look pregnant, don’t I?’ she said once, mournfully, in the Ghost shop. ‘No, you don’t,’ Justine says. ‘I do,’ said Ruth, ‘except it’s a tumour in my liver. Fucking cancer, it’s so fucking expensive,’ and then the story wanders on, to a grey-green dress Ruth chooses for Justine, ‘reminding me that I would go on living . . . that I would have other places to go to, and from’.

It is in this chapter that the deathbed scene comes in. Not that Ruth was wearing a Ghost dress, but a rather long dress of ‘dark charcoal-grey jersey wool, the colour of ashes’; and a pair of thick black tights. After a nurse gives her some morphine, her mother places ‘a soft filigree cashmere scarf’, ‘pale cobwebby grey’ at her cheek. Thereafter, Justine will dream of her sister on a bicycle, wearing a Ghost dress; for a long time, she cannot bear to buy any more Ghost clothes. But eventually she tries on a black velvet dress: ‘quite long – the same length as the dress my sister was cremated in’. As she looks at herself in the mirror, you can guess what she thinks she’s seen. ‘The sensible thing,’ she says, ‘would have been to go out – to abandon the velvet dress,’ but she doesn’t. She buys the dress, but never wears it. The green dress that Ruth chose, meanwhile, she loses: ‘a loss which makes me feel a bit guilty, and angry with myself, as well, but mostly surprised, all of which are diluted versions of the emotions I feel about my sister’s death’.

Why does this sound so corny? Well, the unconscious has been known to show a weakness for a nice plump cliché in times of stress. After the death of my brother, I dreamed a catalogue of rescues, done in different TV styles: there was a Baywatch rescue, and a Thunderbirds, and others I forget. Many times, I dreamed of his body rising, like Jacob Marley’s, in clanking manacles – me and how many millions of others, I wonder, every day.

Just because something is true, however, does not make it dignified or interesting, and there is something mawkish in the way Picardie lingers over these painful events. It is also opportunistic, as such scenes of orchestrated sentimentality so often are. Behind all the mournfulness and reported agony, veiled from the casual reader by all these cobwebby neutrals, Picardie is nimbly shuffling various similar-but-slightly-different moments, frocks, emotions, to much sad atmosphere but little dramatic consequence. She is of course welcome to keep private whatever she chooses to, but sometimes she appears to forget that writing can be made exciting by means other than emotive self-revelation. Facts can be exciting; so can criticism. The gothic can be tremendously exciting, and bracing too. A touch of irony can be wonderful amid those gloomy drapes and folds.

In If the Spirit Moves You, Picardie told the story of a year, roughly, spent toing and froing between paranormal contacts. The meetings gave the book a traditional quest structure, the year-long duration a sense of resolution and healing. In this book, she appears to be trying for something similar, but without anything in particular to quest for. After her visit to the dead-bird atelier, she writes that she started collecting what she calls ‘feathery excerpts’ – Catherine Earnshaw fighting with her pillow, Tippi Hedren in The Birds. ‘But none of what I read had helped,’ she writes. ‘There was no consolation in it, I wasn’t feeling hopeful, I was feeling confused.’ Of the mother’s wedding dress, so callously – but ordinarily – mislaid, she writes: ‘Just as I cannot yet explain how or why or when I allowed such a precious bequest to slip through my fingers, neither can my mother tell me her precise reasons for buying the dress.’ Then she adds, in neuraesthenic brackets: ‘and sometimes, when I wake up in the night and think about this, about what I don’t know, and what I want to know, it feels as if something has unravelled within and without me.’ Why is she so confused and anxious? The book does not appear to say. Perhaps the quest bits are there to lend a spurious unity to work that might have been better as discrete essays. Maybe Picardie’s observations were deemed more sellable in the Soft Dressing department of memoir.

In her Adorned in Dreams, Elizabeth Wilson explains the ‘sense that clothes have a life of their own’ as having to do with the way dress ‘links the biological body to the social being, and public to private’, forcing us to ‘recognise that the human body is more than a biological entity. It is an organism in culture, a cultural artefact even, and its own boundaries are unclear.’ Even more pertinent to Picardie’s book is the way this manipulation of the boundaries of human flesh is mirrored by public relations, the manipulation of personality. When Picardie says she’s interviewing Lagerfeld, or Donatella, or Erin, who or what is she really getting? Not, for sure, a simple person, whatever that might be; and this is true even of O’Connor, who has invested much energy, including a television documentary about her sensible self and a self-mocking cameo on Ab Fab, into projecting herself as more intelligent, more GSOH, than all those other models whose names we once knew but have forgotten. In fashion, in journalism, in fashion journalism, no one comes forward to meet their public without an elaborate cybernetic surround of lies, deals, sucking up, unchallenged neurosis, innuendo, not to mention charm and gush. Picardie’s book does not investigate this fascinating process. It coasts it, rather, and in its own way is up to much the same thing. Memoir-writing need be no more truthful or authentic a pursuit than writing sycophantic copy for a glossy magazine; indeed, the forms sometimes come close. Both manipulate the reader’s emotional responses by manipulating boundaries between the real and the fake.

Back in the Versace palazzo, struggling with a snuffly Donatella, Picardie confesses that she had come to the interview with an ‘absurdly misguided idea that . . . she would want to talk to me, because I had lost a sibling too; that we might have something to share’. Donatella sniffs further; a ‘black cloud’ sweeps over her ‘sun-bronzed face’. At last, Picardie summons up the courage to ask her. Does she still feel alone? ‘I never believe that Gianni is happier where he is,’ Donatella replies, looking upwards from her green python handbag. ‘He didn’t want to die. He was killed brutally. My world stopped that second – and stopped for a while. I was obsessed with seeing my brother’s body,’ Donatella goes on, ‘so I went to Miami, and that was done. It was terrible. People say about the dead: “They’re at peace.” He didn’t look that way. He was scared – the look on his face was one of terror. I realised that the world was not a good place. The world was a very bad place. You have to protect yourself from it.’

‘Poor Donatella: so expertly put together,’ Picardie lugubriously emotes. ‘Pearl lipgloss and black cashmere and Tiffany diamonds, all wrapped round a broken heart.’ Poor Donatella? I know little and care less about Donatella Versace, who most likely is as frightful as the horrible clothes she sells. But what is wonderful about the way she speaks about her brother is that it invites no pity at all. Her grief is there, graven, just part of her, which is surely a fitting place for such grief to be.

Many people object to memoir and personal anecdote on principle, being suspicious of the necessary narcissism, worried about the ensuing trivial-mindedness, ashamed by the compulsive force of their own voyeuristic response. These concerns are entirely reasonable. When I started writing about Picardie’s book, I had long since decided to ignore that promise I had made to myself, to write about the trip to Topshop and the chapel of rest. It would be tacky and disloyal, and anyway, I didn’t see the need. Then, at some point, all those feelings changed round. I thought again about the promise, I liked the shape it made as a story when I wrote it down. I got an imperative feeling about it. I had to put it in because if I didn’t, the piece would not be right.

Picardie ends her story with a trip to the ancestral home in Cape Town, where her grandmother’s hand-sewn black sash appears, like so much else, to have got lost. She has an epiphany, that her grandmothers ‘lived and breathed and laughed and cried, like their children and their children’s children’, and then her son is rushed to hospital. It turns out not to be serious, but it means she has to sit all night by his bedside, wearing her Ghost top and trousers and her sister’s jacket from Gap. Then, as morning breaks, she has a further realisation: ‘I almost understand, at long last, why my mother chose . . . a black dress to wear beneath a leaden foreign sky, where rain turned into fog and the sun was a low and sullen thing.’ And so it all winds down. ‘It’s all a patchwork, I think, eyes closing against the light’; then, suddenly, they’re all there, ‘just for one moment . . . clothed in sunlight, all of them. My grandmothers and my mother and my sister, here with me now in the Cape Town dawn.’

Such moments of blissful restitution belong not to reality, but to paradise, tearful dreams, film posters. Their emotional composition is not about ‘is’ but ‘ought’, which is one definition of the sentimental. The realm of fashion, I suppose, might also be seen as fairly dreamy, only that sounds so much less real and frightening than the way it feels to be living in a world gone completely fashion-mad. The frantic searches, the mad copying, the furry gilets and matching pom-pom boots; the puffball dilemma, the turban-skirt compromise, the unwearably ostentatious shearling coat. The mortified body, the passing triumph, the very occasional perfect garment you wear until it falls apart; the constant change, the impossibility of controlling it, the losses and disappointments, the unforgivable waste.