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 …
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 We see her in a series of apparently very drab and out-of-date dresses.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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
And 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.