Monday 11 March 2013

Edith Wharton and the Doucet dress

Edith Wharton to my mind is one of the most important writers of fashion not just because of the liberal attention to details of dress  which makes her writing so appealing but because her works are littered with shoes, gloves, parasols, hats  and, of course, yards and yards of sumptuous fabrics. Details of dress for Wharton are not merely about reflecting a character nor about a careful reader charting the changes of fashion’s nuances, rather an outfit has the level of presence to change the narrative action. Lily Bart in The House of Mirth only has to contemplate the outfit she has selected the previous night for the wooing of Percy Gryce on an unaccustomed visit to church to change her course. Lying in bed on the sunlit morning:

‘A small spark was enough to kindle Lily’s imagination, and the sight of the grey dress and the borrowed prayer –book flashed a long light down the years. She would have to go to church with Percy Gryce every Sunday. They would have a front pew in the most expensive church in New York, and his name would figure handsomely in the list of parish charities.’

She soon misses her appointment with Percy Gryce and adorns an alternative outfit for a more pastoral affect in her meeting with Lawrence Seldon at a ‘charming spot’ on a ‘rustic seat at a bend of the walk’:

‘assuming a dress somewhat more rustic and summerlike in style than the garment she had first selected, and rustling downstairs, sunshade in hand, with the disengaged air of a lady in quest of exercise.’

So I expect nothing less of this author of fashion than her being one of the first mentions I can find of a fashion designer in fiction:

‘Out of spirits? Why on earth should you ever be out of spirits? Is your last box of Doucet dresses a failure, or did Judy rook you out of everything at bridge last night?’
Lily shook her head with a sigh. ‘I have had to give up Doucet; and bridge too – I can’t afford it.’

For me this is a significant move in the literature of fashion suddenly it is the name rather than the detail which tells us all we need to know. Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) was born into a family Rue de la Paix business of fine linen and lingerie. He opened his salon selling evening gowns in 1871. Maison Doucet specialised in pastel colours and using lace, ribbons, beading and embroidery so that the dresses appear ethereal compared to more recent fashions.  There was also a move towards the more upright figure line so when whole dresses were made out of gros point de venise lace with floral designs the fluidity of the body and the lace intertwined.

Doucet was also a man who claimed a literary and artistic eye with Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ on his hallway wall and two libraries. It is not insignificant to me then that Wharton chooses Doucet to name in her fiction and that she herself dresses in Doucet to entice the literary eye of Henry James a writer whose attention to detail of dress is often overlooked. That she suggests he didn’t notice her – that the dress had somehow failed to draw his eye – is to me or at least  I would like to think an elision, an autobiographical literary sleight of hand – how could he not have noticed a tea-rose pink Doucet.

For a long time there seemed small hope of his ever figuring there, for when we first met I was still struck dumb in the presence of greatness, and I had never doubted that Henry James was great, though how great I could not guess till I came to know the man as well as I did his books. The encounter took place at the house of Edward Boit, the brilliant water-colour painter whose talent Sargent so much admired. Boit and his wife, both Bostonians, and old friends of my husband’s, had lived for many years in Paris, and it was there that one day they asked us to dine with Henry James. I could hardly believe that such a privilege could befall me, and I could think of only one way of deserving it — to put on my newest Doucet dress, and try to look my prettiest! I was probably not more than twenty-five, those were the principles in which I had been brought up, and it would never have occurred to me that I had anything but my youth, and my pretty frock, to commend me to the man whose shoe-strings I thought myself unworthy to unloose. I can see the dress still — and it WAS pretty; a tea-rose pink, embroidered with iridescent beads. But, alas, it neither gave me the courage to speak, nor attracted the attention of the great man.  (Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance.)

And years later when he does notice her, through her short story ‘The Line of Least resistance’ is it perhaps because Mr Minton felt ‘hot and grimy in his yachting clothes he had worn since morning’. James does after all end his first letter to her ‘Youth is hard - & your needlepoint, later on, will muffle itself in a little blur of silk.’

Dr Sarah Heaton, University of Chester

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