Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Tales my mother told me

Some time ago, I was talking to the daughter of a Most Distinguished Intellectual. ‘I had a very difficult relationship with my mother,’ she told me. I was astounded. Nothing could have pleased me better than to have grown up in Hampstead, in a political, book-lined home where they read the Guardian over the breakfast table and discussed its contents; where it was taken for granted that you would go to Oxford, and where there was no pressure to get married, have children and make your mother a grandmother.

What was wrong with her, I asked. ‘Oh, you know, she was very angry with the Nazis for stealing her childhood, she could be very bitter. But she did teach me some important values about opposing oppression, and feminism of course. Are there any lessons your mother taught you that have stayed with you, Linda?’

We were driving through Swiss Cottage at the time, held up at the traffic lights. I tried to think. My mother was not an intellectual, she read the Daily Mail, lived for shopping and what-will-the-neighbours-think and was also a difficult woman, but for different reasons altogether. But indeed, I suddenly realised, she had taught me an important lesson and it had not only stayed with me all my life but I could consider it a defining part of my identity.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘She taught me that a good handbag makes the outfit.’

‘I wish my mother had taught me something useful like that.’

Two days after the 7/7 London bombings, understanding that if I didn’t get on the tube now, maybe I never would, I set off on the Victoria Line to Oxford Circus. Police with heavy weaponry milled about on the platform, the passengers were jittery. Rescue workers were still trying to retrieve bodies in the deep tunnels below us. I got out at Oxford Circus, into a profound, sunny morning, high blue skies and walked up to Selfridges. Inside I passed a man from Liverpool on the phone: I’m alright, Mum, there’s no bombs, I’m just trying on a Paul Smith jacket, I’ll ring you back.’ When people shop, life goes on.*

In the January sales in Harvey Nichols a few months earlier, I had bought a purple DKNY coat, and on the way out passed a cream/pink Furla handbag which was one of those coup de foudre, fall in love encounters frustrated by my bank balance. Now, in Selfridges, seven months later, it was the very last day of the summer sales, with an additional 10 per cent off to lure in terrified Londoners (because that’s what terrorism’s goal is, not merely to kill but to terrify those who survive). And there it was, my bag, patiently waiting for me, reduced from £330 to £93.

That bag was later stolen, recovered by the police with most of its contents gone, its leather subsequently ruined in a very heavy downpour in Budapest but I can’t quite throw it out because it was, in its time one of the best bags I have ever owned. It made every outfit I wore it with.

Eventually I replaced it. This came about because of my historic (for me) meeting with Anya Hindmarch and her wares when Alexandra Shulman sent me off to her Pont street shop after a fruitless five-day search for a brown day bag. Buying bags is about finding the best one you can possibly afford that is a classic - that is not a bag that you have seen in a magazine on the arm of a celebrity (which she got for free, 'gifted' by the designer) and which will be out of date in three months. A magazine editor told me that 20-year-old girls on £14,000 pa are buying £1000 handbags and going into crippling credit card debt to pay for them. Bags they will be ashamed to be seen with in a year.

If the best bag you can afford is an Hermes Birkin, buy it. If it’s a Chanel 2:55, buy it, if it’s an Anya Hindmarch Carker, buy it, if it’s a Furla buy it. It’s not a pet, it’s not a Xmas tree decoration, it’s an accessory. It’s designed to be right for the occasion, whether it’s going to work or going to a party, and it’s designed to pull together the rest of your outfit. Were I have to surrender all but three bags from my own collection they would be: my brown Carker, a red suede Fendi baguette, and a sequined evening bag inherited from my mother.

When she died in 1999, we put in her death notice in the Jewish Chronicle, ‘She taught us to respect others, that a bowl of chicken soup can cure almost anything, and a good handbag makes the outfit.’ I’ve worn her evening bag to Vogue parties thinking of the day, sometime back in the Fifties when she bought it, little knowing that from suburban Liverpool it would one day be held with pride and affection, with no jealousy at all of what Kate Moss had on her arm (Pete Doherty, as it happens.) It makes the outfit every time.

Norm has something to add


adele said...

What a wise and wonderful post, Linda. Couldn't agree more with your mother and with you about the importance of SHOPPING! And especially for bags. I am now going to click on your links and feast my eyes...

twollin said...

Linda - ah, the tales my Mum told me (from Selby, Yorkshire; nurse midwife in Glasgow during the war when she met my Dad; came to the US in 1948)about clothing and fashion in general:
1) When you see green leather shoes (and by shoes she always meant pumps), in your size, unless the cost rivals the house mortgage, buy them because you will not see them again for at least five years. Same rule applies for grey suede.
2) If your face is still in good shape, wearing dress gloves will take 10 years off your appearance.
3) Just because you can (wear some item of fashion that you wore when you were 20) does not necessarily mean that you SHOULD.
4) The sun is NOT your friend.
5) Always have one good hat in your closet - it's one of those things you will absolutely want for a wedding or a funeral and is the one thing you will never be able to find if you have to run out to get. (this rule really is for the US - in the UK; I know you can run out and hire hats - a bit of marketing genius, I think that would fail miserably here)
6) Black looks good on almost no one - navy blue looks good on almost everyone. If you want to look different at an evening event, wear midnight blue, not black. People will think you very chic and clever.
7) Always buy the very best you can afford in whatever you get.

Linda Grant said...

I wrote a piece about black a year ago, I'll put it up next week - a most important discussion. Your mother gave you some excellent advice.

Ellen said...

Great post. Too bad that I can't afford any of those bags you mentioned...yet. Saving up for a Chanel 2.55--perhaps I will own in in ten years.

Thomas said...

Interestingly I wrote what I suppose would be the male equivalent of this column on my blog. And now you've confirmed my suspicions - I should absolutely spend two thousand dollars on this bag:

The Contentious Centrist said...

"it was the very last day of the summer sales, with an additional 10 per cent off to lure in terrified Londoners (because that’s what terrorism’s goal is, not merely to kill but to terrify those who survive)."

Hmm. I don't know about that. Soon after 9/11 there was a series of ads on television, endorsed by George Bush (well, he appeared in them) urging Americans who were asking: what can we do? How can we help? to go the the malls and continue their shopping. It was the time when my opinion of Bush whom I had disliked in abandon before was undergoing a major reconstruction. But those ads angered me beyond anything. I didn't see the advice as Linda does, a healing and restorative measure. I saw it as a greatly missed opportunity to galvanize the American people, who are addicted to oil, to start saving on their oil consumption, and begin to consider conservation as an existential impertaive (or at least not as a dirty word).

I guess in hindsight, I could charitably use Norm's logic here: whereas the N-priced objective was discarded since it was much too unrealistic, the more modestly-priced M aim could be adopted. And if I were cynically minded I'd phrase it this way: if you can't prevent terrorism (by draining the money pool that finances it), you can at least resist its ravages in style (by spending money on less expensive items).

Linda Grant said...

I don't think anyone in London was told to go shopping by Tony Blair, Ken Livingstone or even the Archbishop of Canterbury (who actually lives in London) - the question was whether they were too scared to get on the tube to go anywhere. The resumption of normality in London was the issue, not following a higher moral calling. It was encapsulated by this website which represented the true spirit of London

Camelmeister said...

That was a strange week indeed Linda. I was on a cookery course in Devon the week after, and the other people on the course where amazed that I would "dare to take the tube".
One has to live life.
Now how about a thread on what my GrandDad told me about suits and shoes, from a male perspective ;)

Bag Snob Tina said...

Linda, this is so touching. I completely agree with your mother!

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Women Leather Blazer said...

What a wise and wonderful post, Linda.