Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Last-Year Reads: A Fashion Alphabet

The final book in my Janey Ironside reading is A Fashion Alphabet. Written in 1968, it's her attempt to pin-down the "ever-expanding vocabulary of fashion" through describing its main terms, and in turn to reinforce the view that "Fashion in clothing is one of the great living arts of civilisation". Rather than simply running from A to Z, the book is organised into separate sections on things such as fashion silhouettes, outlines of clothes, accessories, footwear and hair. Each is illustrated with lovely line drawings by Susan Smallwood.

It gives an idea of what a good teacher Janey Ironside must have been. It's precise - as well as the 49 types of collars mentioned, there's also 22 types of sleeves for example - but also observant and witty. Though looking quite straight, it frequently goes on interesting diversions such as the history of spectacles, or her option on things like the importance of keeping your hairstyle up-to-date.

The section on hairstyles is one of my favourites. In Janey she writes about how she heeds her own advice with regular visits to Vidal Sassoon for new styles. The only one she notes that was a failure is the Greek God, which is defined and illustrated above if, like me, you wouldn't have a clue how to spot one on the street. I love the exact manner in which she dates the hair styles: the Greek God in 1967, the Abstract (another Vidal creation) to 1964. Her descriptions here are very amusing:

"The Brigitte Bardot: ... Like Juliette Greco's hairstyle, a parental and teacher's anathema. Equally unsuitable for anyone over 30".

""Mop (also called Freak-Out): Jimi Hendrix or Harpo Marx, according to your generation"

As both the two other books illustrate, part of Janey's skill was picking up on the spirit of what was going on about her and that's also true here. So while she does tick all the high fashion boxes with definitions of things like "A Line" and "Space Age", her section on Fashion Silhouettes and Looks also features street style alongside the designers. She cites Teds as the "first of many trendsetters from the working-class as opposed to the time-honoured convention of fashion working 'downwards'." Mods, meanwhile, "were very clean and neat and both wore close cut hair. Their rather angelic appearance was slightly belied by some of their more bellicose activities."

It's quite sad to realise what a limited vocabulary you have when it comes to describing beautiful clothes properly and to read about the gorgeous sounding terms that have fallen out of fashion. It's also evidence of that truism for how some things have changed,  other things seem to have not changed at all. In a typically chatty style, Janey writes:

"Perhaps as this is a dictionary and must be precise, I should not attempt to define such a variable image, but ever since the "Greenery-Yalleries" of Pre-Raphaelite days ... there has been a Chelsea Look centred round the King's Road, London, which becomes almost a uniform amongst its own set and is imitated elsewhere". Fans of Made in Chelsea take note.

You can read my about Janey Ironside's autobiography here, or her daughter's account of their relationship here

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