Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Last-Year Reads: In The Mink by Anne Scott-James

I've been trying to get my hands on In The Mink by Anne Scott-James for while - it's a novel set in the fashion magazine world of the 1930s and 40s and published in 1952. It's always been too expensive or slipped through my hands (I still shed a tear about a copy stolen from outside my flat). With the book finally in my hands, I read the Guardian obituary, which describes it as "scarcely readable as a novel". Oh dear. But now I've read it, I see what he means. For all, "hand on heart" that Scott-James swears in the foreword of the book that it's not a memoir, it absolutely is. And, if the characters themselves are made-up or exaggerated, she writes about both the day-to-day of working on a fashion magazine, and the changing fashion world in Britain in such detail, that it's impossible to read it as anything other than a record of the period.

Miss Gaskell of In The Mink leaves Oxford to start as an assistant at Venus fashion magazine. During the Second World War she leaves to work for View, a photo-led news publication, before returning after the War to be editor of Venus. Anne Scott-James, meanwhile, leaves Oxford and becomes an assistant at Vogue, before working for Picture Post during the War, and then moving to be editor of Harper's Bazaar. In interviews, Scott-James described both her frustrations with the boys club atmosphere of Oxford and how she saw herself as one of the first career girls. At that stage, there weren't too many career options open to women, journalism being one of them although women were expected to focus on fashion, food, family and interiors (and although Scott-James did get some exciting assignments on Picture Post, it automatically fell to her to cover the fashion too - there's one of her features below). She also points out it wasn't considered a glamorous career either until after the War. There's quite a bit of defending of the value of fashion throughout the book, and emphasising the high standards applied to the editorial of fashion magazines.

Anne Scott-James photographed by Cecil Beaton, via

As Miss Gaskell is trained up in the world of magazines, the reader gets to learn about their inner workings too. There's an introduction to their baffling language, and that strange punctuation which defines early twentieth-century fashion magazines, where "dots, dashes and colons assume unusual importance in this particular code", as well as an outline of captions, of photography and of layout. It's all held together with a huge serving of humour - there's a feature commonly known as "bitches in tiaras", for example, which becomes Bitches in A.T.S., Bitches in A.R.P., or Bitches in Red Cross Uniforms with the onset of war.

The glamour and excitement comes in the grand occasions, such as her first fashion show where the Venus fashion writers sweep in wearing little black dresses and pearls, while the team at the rival Couture had gone "county" in tweeds. Or its in the personalities who all work in the world of fashion. On the magazine alone, hardened professionals on the team rub shoulders with exotic creatures, brought in to add beauty, taste, elegance and, of course, those vital connections to the team. I'm sure those more well-versed in 30s aristocracy than I am will be able to put the real names to some of these creations. Meanwhile, I'm pretty convinced that the American Miss Flower, as described in the passage below, has to be Carmel Snow:

"Tiny, and brittle, with a mass of curly bright blue hair… Mrs Flower … slept soundly through most of the Collections. But some sixth sense would function when anything particularly good came on and would press a bell in her brain. Then she would sit up with a jerk, open her bright, birdlike eyes, and make feverish notes. (In fairness to Balenciaga, I must say she was never seen to close an eye at a Balenciaga Collection)."

In The Mink is especially interesting because it tells it all from the British perspective. The influence and power of the likes of Snow or Woolman Chase is on a different planet, and the Brits can only look on in admiration. Miss Gaskell writes enviously of the quality of their photographers, and their models - and their budgets.

Deborah Kerr models utility clothes for an Anne Scott-James feature for Picture Post, March 1942. Via

This does mean the book is brilliant in telling the story of British fashion from the 1930s until the late 1940s. Pre-War, they are described as disorganised group, ranging from the couturiers (with some well-known names such as Molyneux and Norman Hartnell), through the London stores, and Madam shops and the wholesalers. Post-War, INCSOC is making its presence felt, there are public relations officers in place and the whole situation becomes much easier for the fashion press.

Similarly, she reports in on the developments in US fashions in the periods and the "delicious" accessories and novelties they could offer the world, alongside "lovely costume jewellery, elegant shoes, good cheap gloves and stockings, amusing, well-cut beach, sports and lounging clothes. The teenager clothes were outstandingly well-designed, and the furs the most exciting in the world." However, she notes, "the thing you rarely saw was fine handwork."

Faced with a failing magazine, as editor Miss Gaskell rebuilds the success of Venus through really concentrating on fashion, for trying to push that above the quality offered by other magazines. This is an interesting difference to Scott-James's own career. Realising the sorry state of British fashion post-war, she concentrated on building up a great team of writers at Harper's Bazaar, and commissioned work from the likes of Elizabeth David, John Betjeman and Eric Ambler.

The ending of the book is perhaps the oddest thing about it, but fascinating for those interested in working women in this period. She (now long since a Mrs) decides to leave editing as she can no longer juggle the challenges of the job with her duties as a mother, lamenting that "before the war, leading a double life was much easier". But, in the cry of a pioneer, she vows not to be defeated:

"I am a staunch believer in having one’s cake and eating it, a principle I have followed greedily throughout my life. I know there must be a way of having and eating this cake, and somehow I shall find it."

That's the last we hear of the career of Miss Gaskell. Scott-James, meanwhile, carved out a career for herself as a newspaper columnist, and became one of the most famous opinion leaders in the country. You can read more about her life here or, through the words of her son, Max Hastings, here. However, I really recommend you listen to her tell you herself on this 2004 episode of Desert Island Discs. It's a fascinating life that perhaps doesn't get given its due attention in this book.

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