Welcome to the craziest and most inconsequential of lives…
Bearing all before them
Obviously I have my own opinions on fashion. I am a believer in the old
saying that, ‘A gentleman wears his clothes, they do not wear him.’ This has the advantage of explaining why my jacket and trousers need not necessarily match and occasionally hang more loosely than the current style dictates.
When it comes to hair, I get it cut occasionally and try to ensure that it
neither gets so long that people assume I am a musician, nor so short I am mistaken for one of the criminal classes.
For the ladies it is obvious that those who reach a certain level of affluence must needs keep a far closer eye on fashion than ever I do.
Indeed, necessity ensures that I am more up-to-date on women’s fashion than I am with regard to men’s. After all I have to be prepared to reassure a hostess or boost the morale of one of her guests. Indeed with some of my patrons I might even, in some small way, play a minor part in setting the fashion for the coming season. After all a short verse can remain in memory long after some sartorially inspired rant has faded from mind.
Chiffon and lace
This mantua in navy.
But I confess that when it comes to how a lady should dress her hair I remain obdurately silent. I am willing to praise the end result. I am fluent enough to talk about how the hair ‘frames’ the face, but otherwise I can feel entirely out of my depth.
Yet I have noticed over the years that styles will slowly get more and more complicated until the crescendo eventually reaches a climax and suddenly all is simplicity again.
This has happened comparatively recently. Over a period of years hair was not merely worn ‘up’ but was plaited to within an inch of its life. Then there seemed to be a burst of spontaneous madness. Whereas hair might be kept up with pins, other ladies obviously had different ideas. I saw one lady who had her maid weave her hair around a small basket containing a rather elegant flower arrangement. Well that opened the floodgates. I saw ladies whose coiffure included mirrors, stuffed animals, a ship in full sail, and in one case a birdcage containing a singing bird.
The problems these hair-styles imposed upon the lady displaying them were many. Obviously a skilled maid, with assistance, could create it. The lady merely had to walk with a straight back, move with stately grace, and sit down and stand up with care. It must be confessed that those ladies who could ‘carry off’ these styles were ladies of magnificent deportment and elegance. But even with these natural advantages, actually getting to the ball to which you had been invited was a major exercise. The timing and execution had to be with a precision senior condottieri captains could have studied to their advantage. Let us take as our example, Madam Twell. Four hours before the time she needs to leave she is dressed and her maids make their assault on her hair. Three highly skilled young women labour mightily and Madam Twell sits motionless, save to obey their instruction to, “Tilt a little to the left,” or, “Now raise your chin.” At times Madam is invisible, hidden behind a forest of stepladders.
Then she is ready. The sedan chair awaits. But obviously no ordinary sedan chair can carry Madam. The one summoned has no roof. But what if it rains?
Fear not, the procession sets off. There is the chair with the two bearers.
Madam is protected from the elements by what might be regarded as a canvas marquee. It is supported by a pole at each corner, and a maid carries each pole. Around this centrepiece are deployed half a dozen burly footmen, their purpose is to stop anything impeding the advance of their convoy. A path is cleared through the traffic, small boys who might throw horse dung are kept outside easy throwing distance, and rival coiffurists are prevented from gaining too close a look at the edifice before it is revealed in all its glory at the ball. Making up the number is the butler and under-butler.
Then comes the arrival at the ball itself. On the invitation itself the hostess will normally pen a number in the top left corner. This is the height of the ceiling in the principle room. Thus if the number is, for example, fifteen, the lady knows she can safely wear her hair up so it is twice the height of a man. But beware, what if the grand entrance is only ten? Or the corridor one processes along a mere nine? In this case Madam is forewarned. Her maid reconnoitred the venue and Madam Twell, the shrewd campaigner that she is, is prepared. At the main entrance the under-butler steps forward and places a wheeled tray on the ground under the sedan chair.
Gratefully the bearers lower the chair onto the tray and together they wheel the chair down the corridor into the ballroom.
Like a woodman hauling his cart down the grundle
Sturdy chairmen sweat and swear
Cursing a misjudged stair
As madam to the ballroom they trundle
Once there, Madam Twell is handed from her chair by her husband. (This latter gentleman left half an hour after her to ensure that he was in time to provide this invaluable service.) He escorts her to greet her hostess. (Again under these circumstances I would always recommend that, should the hostess have a husband, he too is present. I have found that the presence of one husband might temper any mordant comments, but the presence of both seems to guarantee good behaviour.)
Honour satisfied, the husband will drift off, unobserved, to sit with his cronies and comment unfavourably on modern fashion, the failings of the young, and other topics which guarantee mutual agreement.
Supernumerary gentlemen thus disposed of, the dancing may now commence.
Less than a week after the events I have described, the youngest Mistress Hamdwill appeared with close cropped hair which accentuated her gaminbeauty. A week later, throughout society, bewildered husbands discovered they had longer hair than their wives.
And now a brief note from Jim Webster.
It’s really just to inform you that I’ve just published two more collections of stories.
The first, available on kindle, is
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Meet a vengeful Lady Bountiful, an artist who smokes only the finest hallucinogenic lichens, and wonder at the audacity of the rogue who attempts to drown a poet! Indeed after reading this book you may never look at young boys and their dogs, onions, lumberjacks or usurers in quite the same way again.
A book that plumbs the depths of degradation, from murder to folk dancing, from the theft of pastry cooks to the playing of a bladder pipe in public.
The second, available on Kindle or as a paperback, is
Once more Tallis Steelyard chronicles the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. Discover the wonders of the Hermeneutic Catherine Wheel, marvel at the use of eye-watering quantities of hot spices. We have bellringers, pop-up book shops, exploding sedan chairs, jobbing builders, literary criticism, horse theft and a revolutionary mob. We also discover what happens when a maiden, riding a white palfrey led by a dwarf, appears on the scene.