Miss Silver: the coatee, the fichu, and the bog-oak brooch

I must first apologize to my friend and fellow Golden Age mystery blogger Moira Redmond, whose blog, Clothes in Books, is the pre-eminent source for all topics that combine Golden Age mysteries and the clothing therein. This is your turf and not mine, Moira, and I shouldn’t be trespassing, but I had what a ditzy character in an old Rex Stout novel calls an “ungovernment impulse”.  If you are interested in this sort of thing, you’ll find Moira’s blog fascinating, as I do. In the future, I don’t expect to talk about clothes often, but this one topic got me going …

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Not Miss Silver, but ladies of the period

Miss Silver is the detective protagonist of 32 books written by Patricia Wentworth; she is an elderly lady who had a career as a governess before becoming a private investigator. Yes, seriously. Here and more recently here, I have commented upon my admiration for her works. But one thing I mentioned casually in the latest post has been stuck in my mind, and I had to do a little research to settle my thoughts — so I thought I would share the results.

One of the things about the Miss Silver books, as I note elsewhere, is that they talk about the same things over and over again. And this absolutely includes Miss Silver’s clothing, a constant source of paragraphs of narrative. We see her in a series of apparently very drab and out-of-date dresses.  Here’s a fairly representative description from 1943’s The Chinese Shawl:

Miss Silver, like Cousin Lucy, wore glacé shoes with bows, and strange thick stockings. She was dressed in one of those flowered garments which saleswomen press upon unresisting elderly ladies for summer wear. In Miss Silver’s case it consisted of a dark green dress lavishly patterned with a kind of Morse code of dots and dashes in orange, magenta, and green. The accompanying coatee was mercifully of a plain dark green. The collarless neck had been filled in with a twist of cotton lace, and was fastened by a heavy oval gold locket-brooch bearing in seed pearls the entwined initials of Miss Silver’s father and mother, now some forty years deceased.

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Glace evening slippers with bows

Now, I think this is wonderfully descriptive. We see that brooch in many, many books. Certainly we can see that fabric in our mind’s eye, and the writer’s feeling about it may have been summed up by the word “mercifully” in the next sentence. I suspect that the dark green dress ends just above the glacé shoes with bows. Glacé shoes, incidentally, have a smooth and highly polished surface, and I was delighted to find a picture that pretty much sums them up, although the bows are not what one might wish.  The experienced mystery reader will hearken back to the Agatha Christie title, 1940’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, in which a pair of glacé shoes with bows plays an important role.

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Again not Miss Silver, but she is never without her knitting

This is pretty much how Miss Silver is described as being clothed in each of the 32 books, with changes here and there — for instance, when she is in a draught-ridden country house, she relies upon a shabby black velvet coatee to keep her warm in the evenings, and at dinner she changes the locket-brooch for “a brooch of Irish bog-oak in the form of a rose with a large pale pearl in the middle of it”.

For years, I have been taking three words/phrases for granted that Wentworth uses and re-uses to describe Miss Silver’s clothing, book after book after book, without ever bothering to confirm my impression of what they were. The other day I thought, “Damnit, I should really know what a coatee is, since I go on about it so much.” I’ve just done some research, and I thought I would share the results.

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This is a black velvet evening cape but could pass as a coatee if it had divided sleeves.

The Coatee

Years ago I used to think Miss Silver’s black velvet coatee was a strange old-maidish garment that merely covered one’s shoulders and tied at the neck; sort of like a scarf with a closure. I was unable to find a picture on the internet that showed such a thing, probably because as near as I can tell, no such garment exists.  It would have been pretty useless anyway.  No, a coatee is — well, okay, let’s call it what it is, a little coat or jacket. I note that it doesn’t have to have sleeves, although I suspect Miss Silver’s did, since she relied on it for warmth. The part that surprised me is that a variant of the coatee is worn by men, frequently with an outfit that includes a kilt.

 

The ways of the coatee are seemingly various; the closure may be diagonal or vertical, and the shoulders may be puffed or flat. And I will add that no power on earth could compel me to wear those plaid trousers, with or without the formal coatee, even in my own family’s tartan.

The lace fichu

Miss Silver is often said to wear a lace fichu; I had merely consigned that odd word to a category of “women’s clothing names I’ll never need to understand” but now, as I said, I’m curious.

A fichu proves to be “a small triangular shawl worn around a woman’s shoulders and neck”, according to the internet, and meant to fill in the low neckline of a bodice. This certainly seems to go well with the generally out-of-date aspect of Miss Silver’s accoutrements. It’s pronounced fee-SHOO.

 

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Bog-oak rose brooch

The bog-oak brooch

Bog-oak is “an ancient oak tree that has been preserved in a black state in peat”. I understand this as the very early stages of a fossilisation process whereby the wood reacts with the water and turns brown or black and hard to the touch.  It was used for jewelry in the 18th and 19th centuries, although not so much today (it’s still used to make carved tobacco pipes).

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Bog-oak rose pendant

I felt fortunate to find two pieces of bog-oak jewelry, either of which could be a match for Miss Silver’s constant companion; neither, alas, features the large pale pearl. I’m not sure why the brooch is silvery; some bog-oak jewelry is said to be lighter in colour, depending upon how long the oak was submerged, etc.

img-thingAnd finally, in an attempt
to see what wonders the internet can sometimes generate at random, I tried a number of Google searches to see if I could find what Google thinks of “dark green dress lavishly patterned with a kind of Morse code of dots and dashes in orange, magenta, and green”. Nothing came very close, but I couldn’t resist sharing this exceptionally … vivid fabric with you. It rather reminded me of a brilliantly graphic coat fabric that Wentworth describes in 1956’s The Silent Pool: “bold squares of black and white with an emerald strip”. The internet is visually silent on that point, and possibly rightly so, since the coat proves fatal to its wearer. I’m sure Miss Silver’s sartorial taste would never run to such garments that would draw attention to oneself, but she does solve the mystery.

 

 

9 thoughts on “Miss Silver: the coatee, the fichu, and the bog-oak brooch

  1. Miss Silver is a favorite of mine. I adore her sameness from book to book. It’s fascinating that you could find examples of her outré clothing. Thanks for the pictures and the knowledge that I am not alone in admiration of her!

  2. Pat Hady says:

    Both entertaining and informative, well done!

  3. eatierney says:

    Oh, how I love Miss Silver!! And as you said in another post, I discovered her when I was just on the cusp of middle age. I have to force myself to go a few years between Wentworth binge. And when I go back I always find her books to be enormously satisfying!!

  4. richmonde says:

    Those look like Victorian dancing shoes (how did they keep them on?). Miss Silver’s (and Miss Maybelle Sainsbury-Seale’s) probably were more substantial, with little heels. Is glace kid (a kind of patent leather) a “sign” of frumpiness or an attempt at flashiness?

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I think your point is interesting and possibly a very delicate class-based observation. To my mind, patent leather is associated with the lower classes who purchase shoes by their looks, rather than their function … OR by people of sufficient wealth to be able to afford a pair of shoes only used for indoor dancing. I suspect without being able to prove it that Miss Sainsbury-Seale’s shoes were meant to indicate that she was attempting to rise in social class by buying shoes that LOOKED right but were of the “wrong” material when compared to those of her social betters. A kind of “mutton dressed as lamb”, but with social class involved rather than sexual attractiveness.

  5. How did I miss this post? Love your descriptions and pictures so much, and you made me laugh out loud. I’m going to claim/grab credit as having, very slightly, inspired you. Miss Silver & Miss Wentworth – neither of them was afraid of repetition… and yet, as you point out, those odd words like ‘mercifully’ make their point.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      You very much should get the credit for inspiring me. You’ve opened my eyes to the details of the clothes in all kinds of mysteries, so thanks! It’s only that I’m coming to it from the POV of a male who doesn’t have an instinctive understanding of what they’re called and what they mean.

  6. Helen says:

    In many series novels, you get the little snippet of who this character is repeated in ever book of the series, with minimal variation.

    One of the interesting things about Miss Silver is that these elements that tie the series together are occasionally expanded. In The Catherine’s Wheel (book 15), the big oak rose brooch is mentioned, with its backstory. It came from an aunt, who had married a “wild Irishman” and died. “Editha’s rose had come a long way and changed a pretty hard-sacrum mistress for a prim and practical one. It remained one of Miss Silver’s most valued possessions.”

    It adds depth to our image of Miss Silver, rather that simply being a descriptor.

    I found some examples of fabric that I think might be like the Morse code dot fabric. Medium dark background rather than white, small squiggles, maybe a centimeter or two wide. The green one is a bit large scale for Miss S, I think.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I agree completely with your point about series novels. And should anyone think that the fact that the Miss Silver novels do it so well means that this is a “female thing”, I would double down with Nero Wolfe and Sherlock Holmes, both of whom have huge amounts of this kind of repeating backstory. I think it goes back to the way that children like to hear stories; in accretive repetitive detail.
      I’ve always liked what Miss Silver’s niece has to say about her clothes: “Such good value, and the fabric will last a long time.” So interesting to have clothing attitudes be such a big part of characterization.

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