Friday, August 22, 2008

Our Pockets Full of Promises and Notebooks Full of Schemes.

Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin

This summer has been the first in a long time during which I have climbed my way through books not for school, but for my own fluttery bookworm heart. I found that, especially in collegiate years, the older-school years made it difficult to read for pleasure. Of course there are the time restraints, but it has been more than just that. Maybe it's my punishment as an English major that reading for academic achievement and reading for oneself become estranged. I remember moments in classes, starting at the most definite moments in AP English in high school, when I became aware of my learning to read differently. This is one of the goals of my professors, to learn to look for this signal or that, find the tropes and the modes, learn the theories and apply them, read this and that through such-and-such a lens, and all the while you must always act completely confident in your work, despite the fact that you as a twenty-something in knee socks and skirts cannot possible understand how you have any right at all to definitively say anything about the legions of literary geniuses forming battalions across the mind's library (my god, that was a pretentious sentence. See what I mean?).

On that cheerful note, the point, sort of. For the most part I've spent the summer reading biographies of all sorts of geniuses, perhaps in some subconscious hope that bits of genius will rub off onto my own creations and ways of being. Thus far my favorite has been Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, understandably as she is a favorite poet, at the moment followed by Life with Picasso (a birthday present from my parents) although I haven't finished that one, and Zelda (which, admittedly I haven't been very taken with, but all the same). I am also in the midst of Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties, although I am inexplicably wary of the author's tone I am far too in love with the book cover and title to be too resistant to it.

One of the things I cannot help but notice and become unbelievable and understandably fascinated by is the attention constantly payed to the aesthetics of their subjects. I know this has something, or perhaps everything, to do with the cult of celebrity and by some strange extension it's not so very different from this or that picture of what current pop culture figure is donning for a trip to the grocery store, but of course it's all so much more romantic when considered through the lens (see, I stole it from so many professors. I know we are not supposed to use cliches but I am addicted to them, partly because I like the homey, weird feel of them and must collect them and pin them under glasses upon cotton batting) of literary or artistic genius. I should also note, randomly and if I were any good English student I would find a place to put this properly in my essay-thing but only if it was useful of course, that I don't care for biographies that don't have those glossy picture pages. I do so hate when they reference this or that picture and then don't include it in the book. The nerve!

It's something which comes up a lot in Savage Beauty. Or, that's where I first noticed it. The picture of Vincent with the flowering tree branches is one of my favorites, and it seems as though others are constantly talking about Vincent in terms of her clothing, how tiny they make her look, how they illustrate her playing the part of the girl-poet prancing through romantic garments. And her letters are just full of descriptions of the most delicious dresses I've never seen, one of which I cannot for the life of me find and it kills me.

“I am cursed, and I know it, with a love for beautiful things. I can'tbear anything that looks cheap or feels cheap or is over-trimmed or coarse. I hate myself all the time because I'm all the time wearing things I don't like. It's wicked and it's ungrateful but I can't help it. I wish I had one graceful dress”.

“I've got it. O, my heart! The sweetest thing. Makes you think of summer & iced tea on the lawn & men & girls & once in a while a breeze. I am—I am languorous in it.”

“O, girls, I have saved the best for last! It is what I needed more than anything else in the world, perhape,--an afternoon dress. Sweller than anything you ever saw, simply regal in every scrap of material, unquestionable this season's... O, girls!
It is made of very soft taupe satin (must be just about the shade of that suit I had, violetish-gray) the skirt is Frenchily long, tho perfectly manageable—made with very soft panniers at the side which end in a row of buttons.... It is very clingy. I've been draping myself around without any petticoat & with one bronze shoe on to get the effect.”

“...& I have paid $10.50 for a tan linen, tailory, cutey, so becoming, with a white muslin collar, spring dress, that I really need, to wear to college. Yes, I know. And I'm going to, from now on.”

(From Savage Beauty):
At the Kennerley's in Mamaroneck that spring, Arnold Genthe took a photograph of her standing among the blossoms of a magnolia tree in full bloom. Wearing that linen dress, she just touched the branches of the tree, her glance away from the camera and slightly downcast, her long curling hair caught in a know at the nape of her neck. She looked winsome and young and fragile, as if at any minute she might become a wood nymph (115).

I also really love these biographies for their pictures. There is the one which is her high school graduation picture, with giant bows on her hair and neck, although my absolute favorites are those of her wedding to Eugen Boissevain.
“On July 18, 1923, Edna St. Vincent Millay married Eugen Boissevain in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. She was ill and looked worn as Norma took the mosquito netting from the porch and, pinning roses from the garden on it, made her wedding veil”.

Despite the illness, I think they are just glorious pictures. The kind of lethargic, effortless (although not really so) practicality to build something pretty and frivolous and romantic fills my tiny heart with aesthetic joy. I cannot of course, hide that the tiniest part of me is thrilled to bits that all of this takes place mere hours, minutes, and all that from where I've grown up. The moments I've chosen are from earlier in the biography, but be assured that throughout the rest of the books there are many equally divine interpretations and descriptions of garments and inspirational bits (not, of course, limited to clothing, but still). It is part of what makes me feel wistful and bitter that I don't live in a time when everything I wore was darling and beautiful and looked like the things in the pictures. It is what I strive so hard for, and yet it does get interrupted by terrible alien invasions.

I must admit that I was not quite as taken with Zelda, or Zelda. There is something sinister about her, I have always thought, although that did not make the biography any less interesting, I suppose it is in that I do not, in the middle-school mentality and desire, feel a particular personal connection. I don't think she's the type of person I would particularly like, but of course there is no possible way not to be at least the tiniest bit fascinated. Pictures of her are slightly less loose-around-the-edges in manner of dress, more in-fashion and smart and shining, more movie-star and red carpet like.

“Graduation was held at the Grand Theater the evening of May 31. There had been a lot of discussion about what the girls should wear, some wanting expensive dresses and no flowers, while others thought that dresses for which the materials were not more than five dollars would be best, with each girl carrying red roses, which were plentiful and cheap. One of Zelda's classmates, Lucy Goldthwaite, said, 'None of us had too much money in those days in the south, and our vote was finally for the five-dollar dresses with flowers.' A few of the girls were disappointed but in an era when store-bought clothes were scarce everyone set about getting their seamstresses to make the prettiest dresses possible within the five-dollar limit. That evening as they gathered behind the stage for the procession, Zelda turned up in a magnificent white silk dress with a tunic of chiffon floating over it, and a large-brimmed hat with long streamers down her back. 'You can't imagine how lovely she was,' Lucy said, 'but of course we were all shocked and some of us were resentful. I mean, it wasn't fair.' No one knows why Zelda ignored the five-dollar rule, or whether she had told her mother, who had undoubtedly made the costume, about it, but everyone agreed that it was just like her” (23).

“It was the first garment bought after the marriage ceremony and again the months have unsymmetrically eaten the nap off the seat of the skirt. This makes fifteen years it had been stored in trunks because of our principal of not throwing away things that have never been used. We are glad—oh so relieved, to find it devastated at last” (66)

The world and clothes described in this one are different, somehow more decadent although the circles cross and are indexed in different points in each, and out of the two this one makes me inexplicably (have you noticed this is one of my favorite words? It makes me self-conscious but I just love the job that it does) pine for underpinnings reminiscent of vintage underwear.

I am just nearing the end of Life with Picasso, and although it is stranger and in some ways vastly different, something about the crowded pack-rat-ness of it applies and is so similar to the previous books. It's both a biography and an autobiography of sorts, and so it enters, I suppose, into a strange world of literary theory (if we want to bother going there, that is) and makes me simultaneously interested in several people at once.

This book in particular lends itself well to fashionalities since, honestly, and I am certain it's subject would detest this kind of thing, it's about visual art. The descriptions of faces and bodes are fascinating and stupor-inducing.

“We were still at table when Picasso and his friends left. It was a cool evening and he put on a heavy mackinaw and a beret. Dora Maar was wearing a fur coat with square shoulders and shoes of a type many girls wore during the Occupation, when leather, along with so many other things, was scarce. They had thick wooden soles and high heels. With those high heels, the padded shoulders, and her heiratic carriage, she seemed a majestic Amazon, towering a full head over the man in the hip-length mackinaw and the beret basque (15).

“On the other side of the room I saw Picasso, surrounded by six or eight people. He was dressed in an old pair of trousers that hug loosely from his hips, and a blue striped sailor's jersey” (17).

Despite this ever-present jersey, most of the snapshots of Picasso in the book feature him shirtless, although many of them are beach scenes which even in black and white make me pine for sand and foamy, salty water despite the simultaneous yearning for crisp autumn days. I find myself reading this book and leaning forwards and perking up at the mention of clothes. I suppose it is because clothing is really so personal. It is what touches us, wraps us up, it's why many of us love (or I suppose, for others, why they are weirded out by) vintage clothing. It's the history, as is there anything as close to a person as the fibers that lie on them? It's deeply personal, these fabrics, clothes, that caress and fold over bodies. Perhaps that's making it all out to be somewhat more sensual than I mean, but not really.

This biography is short on clothing descriptions for ages and ages, and then all at once there are long passages of insight.

“Pablo had no problem buying shirts of shoes, but buying a suit caused him a great deal of trouble. He was fairly broad in the chest and shoulders, and had the proportions in that area of a much larger man, but since he was very small otherwise, he couldn't buy a suit off the rack that fit him [...] 'It turns my life upside down,' he explained to me. 'I can't paint when I know I have to go to a fitting.'” (224)

The thing is, I don't know. I am fascinated by it, I think most people are, we are constantly fascinated by what people wear. I find, in reading, that I want more, I want detailed descriptions of those outfits and dresses and trousers for which pictures aren't included. A tall order, I know, but I feel a compulsion while I am reading about lives on pages to be able to construct them in my head. Somehow, and bloggers and magazines and all sorts of people have pontificated much more eloquently than I on this very topic, it is that intensely personal nature of style, of what one is wearing that is so important. I remember when I was a kid, scribbling and writing funny little stories, it was always too important to know what characters were wearing. It drove me mad not to know exactly, I had to record every detail about it because every one of those little bits was terrifically important and dimensional. It also ties in to something else down the line, the quirks and effortless things we attempt to acquire in the way we dress. The mismatched, iconic piece, the knack for putting something together, something that is significantly 'you'. And all the same, we still borrow from others!

Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. 2nd edition. New York: Random House. 2002.
Milford, Nancy. Zelda. New York: Random House. 1971.
Gilot, Francoise. Lake, Carlton. Life with Picasso. McGraw-Hill. 1964.

Larger versions of book scans, because I like to read the bits on the edges of pictures, over at flickr


  1. I love this post. It's so charming--it makes me consider being an English major (I'm a history person). There's just something so appealing about learning about the lives of authors and artists. I think I feel like I can get insight into the art, by learning about its creator. I agree that hearing about their clothes is really interesting, but I think learning about their childhood education is more interesting. On the other hand, outfits are often my favorite part of descriptions in fiction. I don't know why whether the character is fiction or non-fiction matters to me, but it changes what aspects of their lives I want to know about. Anyway, great post--it's nice that you're back to the blog.

  2. I love this entry. I too wish I was an English Major. Sigh.

  3. I was one class away from an English minor, but I did Classical Studies instead. Not regretting that, actually. Speaking of biographies - do you know a good one of Eleanor Roosevelt? I just read her Book of Common Sense Etiquette, and have always respected her, but I think its time I knew a little more about this, if not stylish, but amazing woman.

  4. I loved Savage Beauty. Such a good book!

  5. These are marvelous and your descriptions are so...winsome. I always wonder about the writers feel about descriptions about them and self-image. It's all so tangled. I've really enjoyed reading the biographies/letters of Gertrude Bell and Bella Fromm.

  6. I quite like Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda. It is the letters between the two, although mostly on Zelda's side as most of Scott's were destroyed. It is amazing to read how lucid her letters were while she was in the asylum, and then to see photocopies of them - they are written childishly and are almost illegible.

  7. As a fellow English major and fashion-lover, I can totally sympathize with your desire to want to know more about the clothes we see these figures wearing -- I am on my way to beginning a dissertation on fashion and literature...a nice to excuse to study it even more. The photos if Millay are beuatiful!

  8. i'm just beginning my english phd and i have to tell you, the dissection element of reading only gets worse. enjoy though, it's truly fun and fulfilling. love the photos of millay.

  9. I love this post! It's what I have been thinking about for the last month or so, but haven't articulated. I think I have been experiencing slight guilt at being a writer who is interested in clothes ... which is silly, because who says you have to become all serious and colourless just because you have intellectual pretensions? It's comforting to know that Edna St Vincent Millay felt just as passionately about her clothes as we do.

    Thanks again!

  10. I found that book (Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin...) and my heart jumped to buy it. I love it. The first about Dorothy Parker made me laugh.