A Sparkling Vintage Life

Monthly Archives: August 2013

Fashionable Friday: Barbara Pym and a Blue Velvet Dress

blue velvetFor years I have been a great fan of the English writer Barbara Pym (1913-1980). In honor of what would have been her 100th birthday, I am rereading some of my favorite Barbara Pym novels, like Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings.  She writes in a cozy style peppered with piercing social observations and subtle wit. Her novels were popular in the mid-twentieth century, then fell out of favor in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s (when I discovered her), then retreated from the limelight once again. On the rare occasions when I meet a fellow Barbara Pym enthusiast, I know I’ve met a kindred spirit.

On this Fashionable Friday I’ve chosen to share a passage from Crampton Hodnet, one of Pym’s earlier novels. She began writing it in 1939, but it remained unpublished until 1985, after her death. Some critics say it’s not her best work, as she was still developing as a novelist and finding her voice, but I think it’s her funniest.

This passage describes an encounter between Mr. Latimer, a single man of about 35, and Miss Morrow, a drab spinster of similar age who works as a companion to the formidable  Miss Doggett. (Note: “marocain” is a ribbed crepe fabric popular in the early twentieth century.)

Why, she’s quite a nice-looking woman, thought Mr. Latimer suddenly, and, indeed, Miss Morrow looked not unpleasing in the dim light. The rain and the exercise of walking had freshened her complexion and brightened her eyes, and such hair as showed under her unbecomingly sensible felt hat had curled itself into little tendrils. When her hair was tidy it was so tightly scraped back that one would never have suspected that it could curl. if she were decently dressed, thought Mr. Latimer . . . but then pulled himself up. What on earth was he thinking about?

Miss Morrow went into her bedroom. She felt that she wanted to laugh, a good long laugh because life was so funny, so much funnier than any book. But as sane people don’t laugh out loud when they are alone in their bedrooms, she had to content herself with going about smiling as she changed her clothes and tidied her hair. She went to the wardrobe to get out her brown marocain with the beige collar, but as she was looking among the drab folds of her dresses, her eye was caught by the rich gleam of her blue velvet. It had been bought to attend a wedding. Miss Doggett had thought it an extravagance. The brown marocain with a new collar would have done just as well. Nobody would expect Miss Morrow to be grandly dressed. It had been quite a success at the wedding, but Miss Morrow had never worn it since. She felt happier in the brown marocain, which miss Doggett’s eye would regard with approval, if it regarded it at all.

I’ll wear the blue velvet tonight, thought Miss Morrow, it’s silly to keep things. It would give her pleasure to wear it, and she wouldn’t be embarrassed by any comment from Mr. Latimer. Men never noticed things like that.   (from Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym, c. 1985)

Which brings me to the point of this Fashionable Friday post. Are you, like Miss Morrow, waiting for “someday” to wear something pretty that’s hanging in your closet? Are you, too, harboring a “blue velvet dress”–a particularly appealing blouse or dress you’re “saving” to wear on some unspecified future occasion?

I encourage you to pull it out and wear it once in a while. Schedule an “occasion” if you have to, or just wear it because it brings you joy. Life is short and unpredictable, and pretty things don’t last forever. If you wait too long, you may find that the garment has become faded or moth-bitten or no longer fits.

As for me, the weather’s too warm for velvet, but I have a faux-vintage white blouse I rarely wear because it’s got lace on it and seems a bit too-too for northern Idaho. But today, taking a page from Miss Morrow, I’m thinking it’s just the thing to wear to lunch.

What item of clothing or special accessory are you holding onto for “someday”?


What the world needs now…a little more grace and poise and a little less…what’s the word…

Why I’m still proud to promote grace and poise.

I could not have said it better myself. Thanks, Clare, for putting into words what I’ve been feeling for a long time. Ladies young, old, and in-between, don’t be afraid to swim against the tide!

And while I’m on an opinion-expressing roll, here’s an insightful post on deliberate self-uglification from one of my favorite bloggers, grerp at The Lost Art of Self-Preservation. A delicate tattoo or piercing, tastefully placed, is one thing. But at no time in history, to my knowledge, have ladies deliberately sought to make themselves frightening-looking, except at Halloween.

Here’s another perspective on The Cult of Ugly, from the thoughtful blog Under the Gables.

Obviously, being overly appearance-conscious is a bad thing, twisted up with gnarly sins like pride and vanity. But isn’t deliberate uglification another form of being appearance-conscious, just in a reverse way?  Dressing to shock and repel, rather than attract?


Amusement Park Memories

As summer winds down, I’m realizing I haven’t been to our local amusement park yet this year. Soon it will be open weekends-only, and then closed for the winter, its rides looming silent like sleeping giants as the snow swirls around them. I should try to work in a visit. I’m not much for scary attractions–my “thrill level” is set quite low; it doesn’t take much to get me screaming, and not in a good way–but I like to walk around and observe, and enjoy some of the milder rides, like the log flume and the (don’t laugh) merry-go-round.

Here’s a bit of Chicago nostalgia to brighten your day. Riverview Amusement Park opened in 1904. My older relatives spent a lot of time there, but I only got to go there once before it was razed in 1967.

Did you have a favorite amusement park when you were growing up? Where was it? Is it still there? What do you remember about it?

Sunday Serenade: O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing

One of my favorites, here sung by the St. Michael’s Singers, recorded in Coventry Cathedral in England.

A friend mentioned recently how much she likes to hear God’s people sing out loud in church. So do I! This is one of those hymns that seems tailor-made for hearty and vigorous singing.

Your turn: do you enjoy singing in church (or other gatherings)? Are you a mumbler or a belter-outer?

Favorite Things: Enchanted Orchid


I’m head-over-heels for this new (well, new to me, anyway) scent from Bath & Body Works, Enchanted Orchid. It’s light and fresh for summer but very traditionally floral. I’d like to affirm that it’s a true orchid scent, but as I’m no authority on orchids, I’ll have to take their word for it. All I know is, my morning is already looking brighter for having smoothed it on my skin.

I’m told that orchids grow in most parts of the world, but I haven’t spotted very many here in North Idaho–not outdoors, anyway. I think of them as a tropical plant suited to warm-weather climates like Asia and the American South. But there are many, many varieties, so I suppose they can grow all over the world. They have a reputation for being fussy and high-maintenance, which is probably a function of trying to grow them in an area not well-suited. Still, the orchid’s delicate nature has contributed to its reputation as the diva of the plant world.

Did you know that the vanilla bean is a member of the orchid family? Well, now you do.

orchidOne source I consulted says the word “orchid” comes from Orchis, a character from Greek mythology who was turned into a flower. Another source claims it is Latin for a portion of the male anatomy and thus, when taken in elixir form, is an aid to reproduction.

Orchids have long been the stuff of romance, a favorite centerpiece of bouquets and corsages. They are also a symbol of luxury and opulence.  “In [her daydreams] she wore or carried flowers . . . and she saw herself glamorous with orchids; discarded these for an armful of long-stemmed, heavy roses; tossed them away for a great bouquet of while camellias; and so wandered down a lengthening hothouse of floral beauty, all costly and beyond her reach except in a wistful day-dream” (Booth Tarkington, Alice Adams). Of course, those who have read the book know that poor Alice ends up carrying to the dance violets she has picked herself in the public park. Only the rich girls get to wear orchids.

How do you feel about orchids? Do you like them? Have you grown them successfully?




Down to Business: Life on the Sales Floor–Swell Dames and Other Hazards

salesclerkI’ve been talking lately about the Marshall Field & Company department store in the 1920s–what it was like to work there both behind the scenes (Emily) and on the sales floor (Marjorie). So I thought you might get a kick out of this excerpt from a 1931 textbook, The Elements of Business Training, about how to be a good salesperson:

“Standing behind a counter and waiting on customers may be real salesmanship or it may be mere order-taking. Almost anybody can wrap up two bars of soap, a can of corn, and five pounds of sugar–all articles that have been definitely asked for. . . . A true sales person endeavors to make sales that will benefit the buyer as well as the seller. Such a sales person bends his energies toward selling an article which will so please the customer that he will wish to return to the same store or do business with the same establishment. A business can have no better advertisers than the customers who are pleased.

“The girl who sells handkerchiefs, or the woman at the stationery counter, or the shoe clerk, or even the soda clerk, has an opportunity to do some real selling. The soda clerk who suggests to a hesitating customer, ‘We have a tasty sundae that we call Chocolate Delight. It is made of vanilla cream with chocolate sirup, ground nuts, whipped cream, and a cherry. It is very popular,’ is showing some real sales ability. . . .

“The girl who chews gum as if that were her real occupation and waiting on customers were a mere incident, is not likely to be singled out by discriminating buyers. Carrying on a conversation with another clerk while waiting on a customer also displays very bad  manners. A lady trying to decide just what draperies are best suited to her rooms is not interested in such conversation as ‘Wherejago lassnight? Oh, dijja? Hooja gowith?’

“Sales people should never comment unfavorably on customers in the presence of other customers. Expressions like the following are always out of place: ‘Did you glimpse the swell dame that was just here? You’d think she owned the whole joint. All she bought was a yard of ribbon.’ The impression the listener obtains is ‘She will be saying the same sort of thing about me when I am out of hearing.'”

Seems to me that this advice applies just as well in 2013 as in 1931. Don’t let the swell dames get you down. And now I’m off to find me some of that Chocolate Delight!

If you could give one piece of advice to a sales clerk, what would it be?


Sunday Serenade: On the Jericho Road

Here’s a toe tapper to get your blood moving on a Sunday morning.

The Chuck Wagon Gang began singing together in 1936, and younger generations are still going strong. I wish group singing–around the piano, around campfires, on long car rides–would become a part of our lives again.

Down to Business: Emily on the Job

kimbrough2Okay, oh-so-patient Emily Kimbrough fans . . . here’s some info about Emily’s job at Marshall Field’s (courtesy of Emily herself, in the memoir Through Charley’s Door). I think Emily and Marjorie would have been great pals, don’t you?

“On Monday morning at nine o’clock, I presented myself in a brown suit and without Gamin [her dog] at the counter of the Advertising Bureau of Marshall Field’s on the ninth floor. My typewriter was in my hand, and my equipment as a copywriter of advertising was the ability to render six times in a minute, ‘Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.’ . . .

“‘You’re over there,’ the office boy said, pointing in the direction behind me and away from the Advertising Offices. ‘In there with the stenographers. One of them can show you your desk. Miss Gardner’ll send for you as soon as she’s ready to see you.’

“I had not anticipated an actual receiving line, but on the way downtown I had conjured up a pleasant picture, people waving from their desks, or coming to the door of the offices as I passed on my way to Miss Gardner, and calling out, ‘So you’re Miss Kimbrough”–“Delighted to have you with us,’ and maybe an invitation or two for lunch.

“A low railing set off a large open space, so filled with desks there was barely room to move among them. Each desk had an occupant, a young girl typing away on a machine at a speed I had not as yet achieved with ‘Now is the time . . .’ The girl at the desk nearest the rail stopped typing and smiled at me. ‘I’m working in the Advertising Bureau,’ I said.

“‘That’s right,’ she answered, ‘they told us you were coming over here. What’s your name?’

“‘Emily Kimbrough.’

“She half turned in her chair. ‘Hi, girls.’ The typing stopped. ‘This is Emily Kimbrough. She’s going to work in the Advertising Bureau. They haven’t got office room for her over there, so they sent word we were to give her a desk here. Emily, this is Mary, Josephine, Elsie . . .’ She made the rounds.

“A girl at one of the back desks called out, ‘Now watch, Emily, I’ll show you how to get to your desk. Go down two, then you can pass between that one and the next one, then go across three, and down one. You get it?’

“It was like the maze at Hampton Court in which I’d got lost once the year before, but I didn’t say so. I had to hold my typewriter with both hands above my waist as I made my way, because the space was too narrow for me to carry it at my side. The girls noticed the machine, and one of them asked why I’d brought it.

“‘Marshall Field’s is no Santa Claus,’ she said, ‘but at least they provide you with a typewriter.’

“While I put my portable on the flat space in front of me and opened it, I was deciding whether or not to admit my stenographic shortcomings and the misconception of my ability that was the cause of my being hired. I decided in those close quarters I couldn’t possibly keep it from them, so I blurted out the whole story.

“The girls were wonderful. Not one of them by so much as a look indicated she resented my getting a job partly on a fluke. Instead they took it as a cute trick on Field’s, and within a minute or two had worked out a system of helping me. They’d all keep a sort of watch, they agreed, and whenever anyone saw a member of the Advertising staff coming over, she’d give me a signal. I was to whisk out the paper I would be pecking on, insert another, and rattle, ‘Now is the time for all good men . . .’ until the coast was clear. Then I could pull that page out of the machine, put back the one on which I was working and go at my one-finger technique again.”

What do you remember about your first day on the job? Were your coworkers as helpful to you as Emily’s were?





Fashionable Friday: What are “church clothes”?

GoodSalt-prcas1279Next week I’ll be attending a conference sponsored by Oregon Christian Writers.  As I reviewed the conference information, I noticed that the dress code for an evening event specifies “Dress-up optional and church clothes are appropriate.” That got me to thinking . . . does anyone know what “church clothes” are anymore? Probably not anyone under the age of forty.

At my church, people attending Sunday worship wear anything from shorts, hoodies, and flip-flops to dress khakis on both sexes and dresses on women. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone but the teaching pastor, and the occasional dapper young man, sporting a tie. Sometimes when I wear a skirt or dress, I hear “Why are you so dressed up?” Why, it’s Sunday, of course!

In my youth in the 1970s I clearly remember having “church clothes,” “school clothes,” and “play clothes.” Church clothes meant my best dress, in a summer version and a winter version. School clothes meant sturdy skirts and pants worn with shirts and sweaters, and jeans were finally permitted in my teenage years. Play clothes meant indestructible, feel-free-to-get-paint-on-them garments, often hand-me-downs or “retired” school clothes. School clothes got traded for play clothes as soon as I got home from school, to keep the school clothes in good shape as long as possible. The church dress also got trotted out for other special occasions, like going out to dinner, playing in a recital, or attending the occasional wedding. Note how attending church was ranked up there with other special occasions . . . we were going to visit God at his house! In short, different occasions and circumstances called for different clothes.

Today, nobody seems to change clothes for anything. What you put on in the morning stays on until you take it off at night. While this is simple, practical, and cost-effective, it’s not very much fun if you’re someone who appreciates clothes. But, like it or not, clothing is a powerful form of nonverbal communication. I think that a person’s choice of worship attire says something about him and his attitude toward God.

Now, I can hear some of you muttering about my privileged bourgeois upbringing and the cost of clothes these days, yada yada. Did you know that clothing costs consume a whole lot less, as a percentage of the average family’s budget, than they did forty years ago, thanks to all the Walmarts, Targets, Goodwills, and cheap imports we have access to today? (If you’re interested in learning more about the ins and outs of the clothing industry, a fascinating book on the topic is Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline.) One can wear a skirt from Walmart as easily as sweatpants from Walmart.

Others of you are protesting that God doesn’t care what we wear to church, that he only looks on the heart. I hear what you’re saying, and I’d be the first to agree that the Lord is no respecter of persons and that Jesus dressed simply in his tunic and sandals. On the other hand, in our culture, what we wear can be a sign of respect and honor. If I’m willing to dress nicely during the week to please a boss or client, or to appeal to a potential spouse, but dressing nicely for church is “too much trouble,” have I got my priorities straight?

Of course, it would be a tragedy if someone felt they needed to miss church because they had nothing suitable to wear. Of course, God would rather have you there in your pajamas than not there at all. Of course, we would be very wicked to make someone feel unwelcome at church because of how they’re dressed. At the same time, am I glorifying God when I come to church in my workaday jeans and tee instead of dressing like He’s someone special and worthy of a special effort? I don’t know. Something about that thinking doesn’t sit right with me. What about being holy and set-apart? What about treating the Lord’s Day as something special, not like all the other days of the week?

And then  there’s that loaded word “comfortable.” I can’t even count how many times I’ve been told that a tee shirt and jeans has got to be more comfortable than my simple top and skirt and a pair of earrings. Um, no it’s not. Yawn.

It’s a controversial topic, this church-clothes thing.  I’d be interested to hear your experiences and argument for/against wearing Sunday best. If you think I’m a stuffed shirt, convince me otherwise! Meanwhile, I’ll continue to pack my suitcase for the conference and puzzle out what is meant by “church clothes.”



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