The Englishwoman’s Wardrobe – Angela Huth

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Sometimes it’s more fun to read ‘history’ when it’s not intended as history at all. This is very recent history, although I was still a bit stunned to realise it was published 30 years ago. I spotted it while browsing through the titles at an online secondhand bookseller. I was looking for Flavia Leng’s biography of her mother, Daphne Du Maurier, and as you can probably tell I got a little sidetracked.

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And I’m so happy I did. This is such a fun and often slightly cutting read. Take this for example, from Huth’s introduction. Poor unknown ‘English Wedding Guest’:

“…the Epitome of the English Wedding Guest, who inspired me to write it. She was a middle-aged lady whose smile indicated how pleased she was to have the opportunity to dress up. Perversely, making the least of that opportunity, she had plucked her ‘Smart Uniform for Special Occasions’ from the cupboard and, possibly, added a new hat… The uniform scarcely needs describing: patent court shoes, flesh-coloured tights, black pleated crepe skirt, plum velvet jacket from whose neck sprouted the inevitable frills of a silk shirt, rising to meet the frills of rather too long greying hair….”

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Words and pictures combine to create a perfect slice of life (albeit slightly privileged society life for the most part). There are some familiar faces. Princess Margaret, a very young Martha Fiennes, Jilly Cooper and Sue Lawley rub shoulders with the Honorable Pearl Lawson Johnston, first woman High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, historical novelist Vivian Stuart, sportswoman of the year 1985, Virginia Holgate, and film producer Laura Gregory. I was also thrilled to see the familiar face of Elizabeth Jane Howard and to learn that she was ‘famous for her jewellery’ which includes ‘mostly ancient gold’.

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The clothes are often brilliantly crazy – this is the 80s after all – but what I found most interesting was the fact that so many of these disparate women shared similar opinions on getting dressed. The vast majority were horribly uncomplimentary about the Englishwoman’s ability to dress herself in a way that wasn’t dowdy, slapdash and drab. Princess Diana was a common style inspiration. And with just one exception, everyone bought their pants at good old M&S.

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What comes across most strongly though is how in thrall we all are these days to the ubiquitous fast fashion. These women kept their clothes, often for years, sometimes decades. They were stored carefully, cared for and a particular dress would bring back memories of all the occasions when it was worn.

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It made me nostalgic for a way of life where we didn’t treat possessions with such carefree abandon and thought more about where and how they were made, something I’ve been struggling to be much more mindful of in my own shopping habits.

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If you’re at all interested in clothing or taking a sneaky peek into the lives of others, it’s well worth seeing if you can track down a copy of Huth’s book.

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