Tuesday, November 25, 2003

A Writing Outfit

Writing at home with chickenpox and registering that almost all my clothes smarter than jeans and thermal vests are in my flat in London, has made me think about what I wear to write and the way in which writing and long dresses is actually associated in my mind.

Like many writers, I have an idea in my mind of a writing outfit. I can’t write if I don’t feel “smart”. I like to dress up and go out to write, in a suit, or a frock. I like to feel professional. If I stay home I have a writing outfit: soft black cotton trousers, a soft t-shirt and a head band (think plump dancer) but it has to match. In the summer I have two Laura Ashley dresses of dark cotton, with empire line waists and huge bell skirts pleated from the waist down and reaching the ankles. But I’ve been known to put on a suit if I have writers block.

What I realised, now I’m well enough to register that I’m not dressed “properly”, is that I have in my mind what a female writer should look like, and it looks remarkably like Katherine Hepburn in Little Women. A shirt waist, a long skirt, a big artists smock with false cuffs to catch the ink, and hair bundled up in a hair net (hair nets have always looked terribly romantic to me—a black friend at college used to have her hair rolled into a gold wire, beaded net). This is odd, as for years, my most despised book has been Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.

In case you were lucky enough to miss this book at A level, Vera Brittain was one of the UK’s first really famous woman journalists (and as her daughter is Shirley Williams, you can’t say it was at the expense of making a more maternal impact on the world). The book is her memoir of the Great War. It’s about 500 pages long, very shoddily written and my class tutor used to dictate to us what we needed to know from each chapter. I was caught between resentment at such a dreadful way of teaching, and the realisation that the teacher was absolutely right and there really was no other way of teaching the book.

Because the book is a mess. It is touted as this touching portrayal of love, loss, and an entire generation. What it actually is, is the story of small town domestic life and the internal agonies of a bright but rather shallow teenager. This is sort of interesting but not if you are looking for the feminine version of All Quiet on the Western Front. What stands out in my mind is the pettiness of the book, and the way almost every really important moment is deflated by an unexpected description of what the author was wearing. So we have a short description of a WWI hospital ward, followed by a very lenghy description of the made to measure nurse’s uniform that Brittain secures. We have a brief description of the interview at Somerville, but only after we have been told about the blue evening gown in which Brittain attended the interview. And a speech on the suffrage is much less important that the full length, brown velvet “outfit” that Brittain wore to give the speech.

I only stopped sneering at this misdirection of energy a few years ago when I studied a few diaries of the period and realised that clothes and the clothing allowance were to that generation of young women the same as food and calorie counting are to young women now—pretty much the only part of their lives they had any control over. But I also stopped sneering when I realised that of all the many pages in the book, those are the three images that have stuck with me for thirteen years now.

I can’t get away from it: the idea of the young Vera floating across the lawn in blue silk is ravishing (she was very pretty); the idea of being able to give a speech in a full length brown velvet suit; the possibility of having a uniform custom made. Of that uniform having a long, swishy skirt so I rustle when I walk. Ooooh. Imagine walking into class in a full length new look skirt? It all makes my fingers itch—especially as my favourite shop, Droopy and Browns—offers just such confections.

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