A Sparkling Vintage Life

Downton Abbey

G is for Genteel

From the dusty archive of antique descriptions we don’t hear much anymore:

Genteel (jen-teel)/adj. From the Middle French gentil = gentle. a: Having an aristocratic quality or flavor; stylish. b: of or relating to the gentry or upper class  c: elegant or graceful in manner, appearance, or shape

It all sounds very Downton Abbey. Is “genteel” a word you ever find occasion to use? Do you know anyone personally who fits the description?


A Touch of Tweed (31 Days to a Sparkling Vintage Fall, Day 9)

Tweed suit, from a 1952 issue of Vogue

Tweed suit, from a 1952 issue of Vogue

Tweed–that rough, woolen fabric so strongly associated with fall– reminds me of academia, the patched elbows and ever-present pipe of a stereotypical professor straight out of Central Casting. Tweed also reminds me of offices, of dressmaker suits and hair scraped into a bun, and heels clicking on hard floors, of clocks and calendars and the clacking of typewriters. These vintage images don’t jibe with my own experiences. Even in my long-ago day, professors were wearing some variation of khaki and polo shirt, or bohemian broomstick skirt and bangles, or, in one memorable case, biker denim and leather. When I last worked in an office, employees wore head-to-toe T. J. Maxx, office floors were carpeted to mute noise, and the clacking of typewriters had faded away in the glow of computer screens. No, these tweedy images in my head hearken back to some earlier time–that misty time I never knew yet yearn for in a curious way.

Tweed brings to mind hunting parties and strolls along the heath wearing sturdy leather brogues–scenes not from my own world, but my imaginary tweed downton abbeyone, fueled by countless BBC dramas. This is the tweed of the British Isles, of shooting parties in cold, damp weather out in the rugged country. It’s the fabric of Sherlock Holmes and the men of Downton Abbey (and the ladies, too, from time to time). A 1998 Smithsonian article described it thusly: “Whether woven in herringbone, houndstooth glen check or tartan, flecked, mingled or striped, the traditional rough feel and subtle coloring of Harris Tweed — and the fact that it is, by definition, handwoven in Harris and the other islands of the Outer Hebrides — have made it, to quote one designer, one of the world’s most ‘noble fabrics.'”

Tweed reminds me of fall, of pumpkins and mist and bonfires and piles of flame-hued leaves. It’s a warm fabric suitable for crisp fall days, but not a cozy one. It’s the sturdy jacket, not the soft sweater underneath. It speaks of ruggedness, protection and strength, which may be why it’s strongly associated with menswear.

To add some vintage flair to your fall, reach for tweed. Some families hand sturdy tweed garments down from generation to generation. Even if you’re not part of the landed gentry, tweed is widely available in shops, and you might find some excellent specimens in thrift stores and on the Internet.

What do you think about tweed? Does it hold good memories for you, not-so-good ones, or no memories at all?

Dishing about Downton Abbey {SPOILER ALERT}

mary crawley mourningFor those of you in the United States, did you watch the Downton Abbey Season 4 premiere last night? What did you think?

I was surprised by O’Brien’s move, grieving with Lady Mary, shocked shocked shocked by the nanny, loved how things turned out between Mary and Carson. As always, I was impressed by the attention to detail, such as the solid black of deep mourning giving way to mauve for the lighter “second mourning.” As Emily Post explains it in her book, Etiquette (published in 1922, the same year that this season opens), “The young widow should wear deep crepe for a year and then lighter mourning for six months and second mourning for six months longer. . . . People in second mourning wear all combinations of black and white as well as clothes of gray and mauve. ”

Re Mary’s grief, which seems maybe excessive to our twenty-first century sensibilities, Emily Post writes, “Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are all unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal. Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless. Persons they normally like, they often turn from. No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely. Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain nerves already at the threatening point, and none have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use nor be received. At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from dearest friends. One who is by choice or accident selected to come in contact with those in new affliction should, like a trained nurse, banish all consciousness of self; otherwise he or she will be or no service—and service is the only gift of value that can be offered.”

Seems like nowadays we expect people to bounce back from deep grief in a matter of days. I’m not sure if this quick return to business-as-usual is such a great thing for the person suffering a significant loss. What do you think?

Regarding Mary’s future, Mrs. Post writes, “There is nothing more utterly captivating than a sweet young face under a widow’s veil, and it is not to be wondered at that her own loneliness and need of sympathy, combined with all that is appealing to sympathy in a man, results in the healing of her heart. . . . There is no reason why a woman (or a man) should not find such consolation, but she should keep the intruding attraction away from her thoughts until the year of respect is up, after which she is free to put on colors and make happier plans.” I wonder what those “happier plans” might be for Lady Mary.

In other news, I also had the joy of attending a Downton Abbey premiere party in Coeur d’Alene, sponsored by Idaho Public Television. I’d estimate that about 80 people (many in costume–my tribe), gathered to nibble on appetizers, sip wine, listen to a string quartet, and pretend, if only for a couple of hours, that the Hampton Inn was Highclere Castle. There was a costume contest, and the winners’ costumes were fabulous (although my own personal most-creative award went to the man at my table who dressed as the late, great Matthew Crawley, complete with bloody head wound.) The centerpiece of the event was being shown the first hour of the premiere on the big screen, but had to wait to watch the second hour at home on Sunday night along with the rest of the country.

One of the unexpected joys of going to a Downton Abbey party was hearing the reactions of a large audience, as if we were in a movie theater, but with everyone being familiar with the characters and backstory. Maybe that’s a glimpse of what my football-loving friends enjoy about watching a televised game in the company of like-minded friends–the collective groans, sighs, gasps, and sniffles as the action unfolds onscreen.

Here’s what I looked like, a semi-confusing conglomeration of decades, but somehow it worked:

downton abbey rotated

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Jennifer Lamont Leo