Fashionable Friday: Barbara Pym and a Blue Velvet Dress
For 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 She began writing it in 1939, but it remained unpublished until 1985, after her death.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”?