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The stuff of dreams

Looking back on a lifetime of fashion

Diana Athill | March/April 2015

As a child I knew exactly what was most desirable: pinkness and sparkle. When I was grown-up I was going to sweep down a flight of stairs into a great ballroom wearing a pink satin dress with a huge skirt: yards and yards of the shiniest pink satin, because obviously if something was desirable you couldn’t have too much of it. Oh, scrumptious pinkness! It must have been what princesses wore.

In those days—I was born in 1917—we had no tele­vision and newspapers didn’t reach the nursery, so my idea of glamour came from illustrated fairy stories. The princesses in these books wore anything that was beautiful and rich; they always had flowing hair and lovely robes. A princess was what I was going to be, with coal-black hair I could sit on. There was a terrible, sad day when I was about 11, when I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and faced the fact that, although of course I was going to change as I grew up, I was never going to change to the point of having coal-black hair that I could sit on. I was always a mouse-coloured child.

Then dresses became real. They were made by my clever mother and entailed standing up straight and not fidgeting while she tweaked and pinned. They were never of pink satin, which I came to understand was just as well. We didn’t often bother with day dresses because in the daytime country children like us, growing up in darkest Norfolk, wore boringly practical garments, Aertex shirts and linen skirts. When we were a bit older we moved on to suits (we called them “coats and skirts”), of tweed in the winter and of grey flannel in the summer, which were made by a tailor in Norwich. Choosing the tweed was fun. My mother and I avoided the tailor’s boring selection (except, of course, for riding clothes); instead we used to go to Southwold, where an adventurous couple had set up a loom and made tweeds in unusual and attractive colours. This upset the tailor, but did not prevent him from making a faultless garment. I had two; one was a very smart dark blue and black plaid, and the other was a soft rust-red. They were comfortable and lasted for ever. And because we didn’t live in London, and hardly went there, we never saw anybody wearing anything different. You didn’t desire what you didn’t know about.

In my teens, there were a great many tennis parties. We had plenty of friends—but no one whom one knew very intimately, no one with whom we would have had a conversation about anything that mattered. (We had cousins for that.) There were two beautiful girls called Diana and Camilla who seemed to me exquisitely sophisticated. They wore make-up long before any of the rest of us and had plucked eyebrows—in those days there was a terrible fashion for plucking the eyebrows to a single line—and I remember thinking Camilla’s plucked eyebrows the height of elegance, and feeling both envious and humbled by them. My mother allowed powdering the nose and a bit of lipstick from quite early on, but not eyebrow-plucking.

The dresses my mother made were for dances. In them, you could become someone nearer your dream self

The dresses she made were for parties—soon, dances. For those, you wore things in which you could become someone nearer your dream self, so you could hope to be fallen in love with. I still think fondly of my mother’s creations: she had taught herself to be good at dressmaking, so they never looked in the least home-made. When I was about 17, there was a silver-grey velvet with a wonderfully full skirt which I adored, and a beautiful French taffeta, sea-blue with the finest of black lines, for which she devised a broad hem of black velvet which made all the difference. And when I insisted, at 20 and by then an undergraduate, on having my first black dress, she found a tulle with coin-sized shiny dots on it which was just the thing. She made it in two parts. Underneath there was a close-fitting sheath, and over it a tunic of tulle held in at the waist, with fitted sleeves. As I had, believe it or not, a 22-inch waist, in the evening I specialised in tight bodices and full skirts, but this was straight up and down—an exciting change.

I can’t help regretting the passing of the evening dress—what in my mother’s young days was called a ball gown—because almost any woman moves better and looks prettier in a floor-length dress, with her shoulders emerging from beautiful material. I think its demise came about when the word “sexy” became acceptable as a description of an attractive garment. It was not that young women in the past were any less eager than those of today to make men desire them, but the words we associated with desirability were “beauty”, “prettiness”, “charm”. I remember the first time I heard “sexy” applied with approval to a piece of clothing—which would have been in the 1950s—it surprised me a bit. Because it was said by a Canadian I thought it was probably natural as a transatlantic usage, although a bit odd—well, vulgar-sounding—to English ears. It was applied to a very chic piece of beach-wear she was kindly offering to lend me, a pair of three-quarter-length black linen cigarette pants, and a wide-necked top that stood away from your shoulders with a turned over collar. It was very becoming and I was delighted to borrow it, so she can’t have been meaning anything rude.

In our pre-sexy days, from childhood and right through the war years, Vogue was our bible, both for inspiration and its sewing patterns. My favourite occupation (after riding, reading and dancing) was poring over its pages, imagining that God had told me that I must choose one thing off every page, although that game was nearer bitter than sweet because it always ended by knowing I could never buy any of them. My family could afford to educate us and keep us decently dressed until we could earn our own living, but it was always anxious about money. Never was it possible to spend light-heartedly, and still less could I do that once I was out on my own.

But still I wanted to wear dresses bought from a shop. I think I was about 15 when I saw the gold lamé evening dress in the window of a Norwich boutique. Its hem was trimmed with mink, and so was its off-the-shoulder neckline, and although I knew perfectly well a 15-year-old girl would look worse than comic in it, I yearned for it, or rather, to be the person who could wear it. The truth was that never, on the rare occasions when I achieved a shop dress, was it as pretty as any of those made by my mother, because always the excitement of choosing made me lose my head. The worst time was when, because the occasion was so important, I was allowed to go to London and choose the dress I was to be Presented in. In those days, daughters of families like mine were presented at court—or rather, this time, at a garden party. It was 1936, during the very brief period when Edward VIII was on the throne before he bolted to marry Mrs Simpson, and he had evidently gone on strike at the prospect of the traditional evening event at which the debutantes would wear evening dresses with trains, and feathers in their hair. That was a bit disappointing, because a long day-dress plus a hat was less exotic, but still it was an Event—so why did I come away from the elegant shop into which I had gone so timidly with a dress in the one colour that I knew didn’t suit me: green?

I hated green, and still do—not as a colour, but on me. And what was more, though it was made of tulle, full-length, close-fitting but with big leg-of-mutton sleeves and a flick outwards at the bottom, I knew that wearing it with long black gloves and a wide black hat was not going to help. I have a vivid memory of the mask of desperate boredom on the sulky little royal countenance, glimpsed as I bobbed my curtsey. I was not far from feeling the same.

This was the year, at 18, that I started at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. There was no particular dress code for the girls, and chiefly I wore my two tweed suits; though I owned a pair of trousers by then, I didn’t think of wearing them for anything other than messing about in the country. I also bought a long, white coat in a guinea shop—shops where everything cost a guinea, or 21 shillings—which was very dashing. It must have been a success because one day when I was walking through the Parks a lady said to me: “May I say, how pretty you look.” What I really longed for was a fur coat. A sable fur coat—not because it would be warm, but because it would be elegant, like Katharine Hepburn was elegant (I didn’t quite aspire to Dietrich or Garbo, who I thought were absolutely the very top of beauty, but unreachable). My dear mother managed to scrape up the money to give me a fur coat on my 21st birthday. It was musquash, and I was almost disappointed. Musquash was not the thing.

In 1939, I graduated. My independence coincided with the beginning of the second world war, so there were six years ahead in which fashion froze and no one was allowed more clothing coupons than could provide for bare necessities. My first war job was clerking for a branch of the Admiralty in Bath, where it was camping for the duration of the war, and I made a very great friend who lived nearby. She and I used to pore over the pages of Vogue together, just as I had done as a child—but really fashion was irrelevant. Everything was so hellish, one didn’t even think about it. I wore my two tweed suits and little else; what would have felt like a luxury to me then was food. Really delicious food.

 

Shirt and tales: Dressed for leisure in the late 1950s, by which time Athill had become a founding director of the publisher André Deutsch

After the war’s end, Dior’s New Look came creeping through from Paris, wildly exciting, even if you could hope to achieve no more than an approximation of it. During the war shoulders had been square, bodies straight up-and-down, skirts narrow and just to below the knee. Now, bit by bit, shoulders began to slope again, breasts to perk up, waists to diminish, skirts to sway from rounder hips and almost reach ankles. Like everyone else, I began to look like a woman again. But at the same time I had become a grown-up, was loving my job in publishing and soon would be sharing my life with a man who would not have noticed if I was wearing a sack with holes in it for my head and arms. He had accepted the fact that if a woman was going to a party she took off the dress she had been wearing and put on another, but he hadn’t a clue why she did it, so saw no reason why he should be interested, and since we were getting on very well together, I saw no reason to try to change him. This, combined with the fact that the living you could make publishing books was a modest one, meant that I had entered a part of my life—a large part of it—in which clothes were not important.

There was a certain unspoken dress code for a working woman, but what you wore to work was little different from what you wore all the time—at home, as well, it was part of what one was. I seem to remember wearing a good deal of beige, and for a while my lack of confidence in shopping turned into positive dislike. I had a friend to whom going shopping in the company of another woman was apparently a treat, and I knew she was not alone in enjoying this—in fact it was quite likely that more women were like her than like me. But her taste for it remained as mysterious to me as women’s attitude to clothes was to my old man.

Still, I was not entirely indifferent. I no longer took Vogue, but something in me kept an eye on fashion: I didn’t follow it, but I always knew where it was going. And I was not above being riveted. On one occasion in the 1960s, I saw a stunningly elegant woman. I was in a shop which sold expensive foods, buying a special cheese, when in came this arresting vision. She was small, perhaps Japanese but not obviously so, and everything about her—her coat, in a rather difficult yellow, her exquisite little shoes, hat, handbag—was unique, in some way unlike anything I had seen before, but perfect to the last stitch; as was every hair under the perfect hat and every touch of make-up on her totally impassive face. As by then women were on the whole wearing rather casual clothes, she really was odd, as if she’d come out of another world. The woman behind the counter and I gazed at her in astonishment, and when she left the shop with her little parcel, looking as though she were enclosed and protected by an invisible bubble of pure elegance, we turned to each other, round-eyed. “Who is she?” I asked. “I’ve never seen her before—she must be someone famous,” was the awestruck reply; and the odd thing about this vision was that she was creepy rather than enviable. I remember thinking, “It’s impossible to imagine her in bed with a man.” I didn’t—yes, I was quite sure I didn’t want to be like her. But…she had reminded me that there was a dream…

And there were some interesting clothes going on. Ossie Clark’s and Celia Birtwell’s long, peasanty dresses, for instance. But I never went near them—much as I would have liked to—because of money. I did do that sort of hippy look: you either wore mini skirts or maxi skirts, and I wore maxis. (Rather dashingly, the skirts I wore were more maxi than anyone else’s in the office. I liked that.) Just once I was tempted to buy a dress by Jean Muir, and tried one on in Harvey Nichols—a lovely plain blue in a very fine silk knit—but it was hopeless, it clung in all the wrong places, and was very much nicer in the hand than it was when I put it on. I didn’t buy it.

What restored my feeling for clothes was being released from visiting shops by mail-order, the devel­opment of which coincided with my professional Indian summer. As middle age began to slide towards being old, I started to make some unexpected money by writing. As I reached my 80s, mail-order (which I used to despise because early catalogues specialised in woolly vests and old ladies’ bedroom slippers) began displaying real clothes. And leafing through catalogues felt familiar. It felt enjoyable. It felt almost like leafing through Vogue used to feel. Very soon I discovered Wall, which every season produces at least one thing—a pair of trousers, an oversize shirt for when one has to bypass the waist—which I have to have, even when it costs more than I have ever spent before, so that whenever I fall for Wall I am consumed by sensations of guilt.

 

Cloth of ages: Athill at home in north London, December 2014, wearing one of her favourite recent purchases – a knitted top from Anne Higgins (109 Kensington Church St; 07941 814221). In the background are (from left) a blue beaded chiffon evening dress, c1920, a 1984 Lanvin haute couture silk dress, and a 1968 Courrèges green wool coat, all prices on request from WilliamVintage (williamvintage.com)

With this has come a most interesting discovery: everything I have bought as a result of a guilt-inspiring impulse has been a success. It also applies on the rare occasions when I venture out of mail-order. There is a designer of magical knitwear called Anne Higgins who used to sell by exhibiting her work here or there on rare occasions, letting customers know by postcard, but now has a tiny boutique in Kensington; and there is a corner of the shop at the Victoria & Albert Museum which displays clothes. At both of these I have proved the truth of the Infallibility of the Guilty Impulse, so that now my wardrobe can hardly recognise itself.

This revival happened just in time, because when one has become very old, which I take to mean over 95, one’s idea of luxury shifts away from clothes. I do still own, and occasionally wear, a beautiful printed coat-dress in dark blue and white cotton, with a Javanese print and sky-blue lining, and little fabric buttons all the way down; and also a lovely black jacket from the V&A, patterned with circles of many-coloured material appliquéd by clever Indian hand. But my main luxury is now something which many old people dread: the wheelchair. They think submitting to it is humiliating, and they are wrong. Nothing could be more deliciously luxurious than being pushed around a really thrilling and crowded exhibition in a wheelchair. The crowd falls away on either side like the Red Sea parting for the Israelites, and there you are, lounging in front of the painting of your choice in perfect comfort. I shall never forget the first time I fully realised how marvellous this can be. It was in front of Matisse’s red “Dancers”, and I have never enjoyed a great painting more intensely.

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