Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Last-Year Reads: It Isn't All Mink

I've been temporarily transported back to student status, living in a small room and carting round all my stuff in a rucksack. It's strangely liberating. I am, however, missing all my books which have all been put into storage while I sort myself out. I've been crazily buying up old titles on Abebooks to fill this book shaped void in my life. There's been a definite lean towards the escapism of fashion titles which is how I came to read It Isn't All Mink by Ginette Spanier.

Spanier was the Directrice at the Pierre Balmain couture house in Paris. This book came out in 1959 and was a bestseller (and led to the sequel And Now It's Sables - also sitting on my shelf). What's surprising for a book that I've seen so often written about in fashion books is how little is is about fashion. The bulk of the book is about her and her husband's experience in Occupied France where she captures the terrible atmosphere of that period simply and well. The other chapters feature a few celeb anecdotes on the like of Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich (who, according to the internet, was her lover - there's no mention of this in the book).

The fashion geek-out bit comes in the last section of the book, where she talks about the day-to-day working of the couture house: the copistes, the "bird-brained, idiotic, charming and completely sincere" mannequins and the inter-vendeuse feuds. I enjoyed (or should that be 'loved'?) her description of Balmain's delicacies:

"He loves long evening dresses and little woollen numbers, high at the neck. He loves dancing. He loves Italy. He loves publicity. He loves very luxurious clothes, with embroidery over them; he loves furs, he loves impossible combinations of material ... lynx fur squirting out of tulle. Once he made an ermine blouse. He loves navy and black, brown and black. He won't have an even number of anything, particularly buttons. It is a terrible crime to consider four buttons instead of three. He likes narrow feet, pointed shoes, tall girls, rich women."

The seriousness with which Couture was regarded, and the madness ("Terrible quarrels, mad warfare, all apparently from nowhere") of its world of Couture is blatantly stated. "In the hysteria of the Couture" she writes, "all standards are topsy-turvey. If a seam is not quite right, that is a matter of life and death."

Spanier talks about Paris as the centre of fashion. She states, "There is no other city in the world dedicated, as Paris is dedicated, to the world of chic" and I think that's what makes this book so interesting. Paris is recovering after the Second World War, and if Spanier is to be believed, throws itself back into fashion, and the soon-to-be outdated world of Haute Couture. And, as the popularity of this book would suggest, the rest of the world eagerly bought into the idea of Parisienne style.

Thankfully, Spanier retains a sense of humour about it all and it's her honesty that's the charm of the book. If you are wondering what to wear to work tomorrow, just consider your manager doing this to you:

"I remember appearing once with Pierre Balmain when I thought I looked really marvellous. Hair, shoes, dress, all were perfection.

Pierre Balmain screamed.

'Ah-h-h,' he screeched, 'your bag. It's terrible.'"

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