I’ve noticed that many of these novels employ daughters as the family dress-up dolls. In Amelia Elizabeth Walden’s A Boy to Remember, Karin moves to live with her grandparents and, in supposed celebration, her grandfather buys her a whole new wardrobe, purchasing
with a lavish hand that first amazed, then startled her. Everything she tried on, that was becoming and fit well, he wanted to buy for her. In less time than most people would take to select one good dress, he had bought her a navy broadcloth suit and a heathery tweed, a half dozen school dresses in the finest woolens Karin had ever touched, four skirts with cashmere sweaters to match, shoes, handbags, gloves, stockings. (27)
(Seriously: skirts with cashmere sweaters to match? I live in the wrong decade… and possess the wrong socioeconomic status!)
While Karen’s grandmother tells her that “it’s a long time since we’ve had someone young to fuss over” (27), it’s a salesclerk who reveals another intention behind the wardrobe:
Then, as the head of the department stood by, smiling at Karin and holding her grandfather’s check in her hands, she said a disturbing thing to Karin.
“You look charming in it, Miss Berglund. You’re fortunate to be the granddaughter of Mr. Berglund.” (28)
Karin realizes that her new clothing is not simply for her; she is also part of a show intended to demonstrate her grandfather’s status in the community.
Just as Karin’s wardrobe is as much for her grandfather as it is for her, so too Dody Jenks’ election as Snow Queen in Mary Stolz’s Pray Love, Remember is, for her mother, as much her own election as it is Dody’s. While Dody’s various family members congratulate her, Mrs. Jenks gloats “‘And think what Mrs. Mann and Mrs. Gates will say….Oh my, wouldn’t I just like to see their faces— ’” (114). Dody’s election is a conquest not only for Dody, but for Mrs. Jenks herself, who feels as if
she’d been, too often, overlooked by Mrs. Mann and Mrs. Gates when they’d passed on the street or met in the school at meetings and things. Not snubbed, she realized dully, but unrecognized. This was heart’s ease, this triumph of Dody’s…. Bosom lifting, Mrs. Jenks said to them, “Oh yes, we’re definitely moving a step up in this town’s society, let me tell you—” (114-115).
Dody’s Snow Queen dress becomes a family affair. The family cannot afford a new dress, but Dody’s older sister-in-law, Joyce, purchases material and makes one for her, while “in an access of proud confusion… Mr. Jenks contributed money for a cheap but dazzling pair of rhinestone earrings” (118). The family’s collective pride in Dody is thus demonstrated not in what she has done, but, on the night of the Winter Ball, in how she looks:
when she went down and stood in the living room door, her assembled family looked up in stunned silence. Then Larry, scratching his head, said hoarsely, “Cripes!” Marjorie said over and over, “She’s beautiful. She’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw.” Mr. Jenks blew his nose, and Mrs. Jenks put her hands to her face and sobbed. (118)
Like Karin, Dody is not only a member of the family, but also the emblem of that family’s social status within their community.
(Random aside: I LOVE Marjorie’s response. It’s so perfectly Marjorie. I always picture her crying after that statement, like Daisy staring at Gatsby’s shirts.)
As emblems, however, these girls are not without their own consumer agency. Although female protagonists like Dody and Karin fulfill the role of family status symbol, they are still in charge of the actual clothing that is purchased/made for them. Joyce may provide the idea and labour for Dody’s dress, but it is still Dody who designs it. Similarly, although Mindy’s shop-owner cousin Alix in Betty Cavanna’s The Country Cousin (1967) must slowly teach Mindy how to emulate the more sophisticated styles of Philadelphia girls, by the end of the novel it is Mindy whose hand-made dress design is purchased by a large New York clothing manufacturer, and whose future at Parsons School of Design consecrates her status as taste-maker.
There’s much more work to be done here, of course, particularly in regard to this taste-maker agency/ status symbol lack of agency dichotomy happening. For now, however, I’ll admit that the main reason I used to love these books –okay, the main reason I still love these books –is because you can’t get any better than their descriptions of clothes. I’ll finish this little post with my all-time favourite description, from Mary Stolz’s The Sea Gulls Woke Me:
(scene: the high school dance. Jean, having fled her hideous date, is now hiding out in a bathroom stall. The popular girls have entered the washroom).
“Did you see that Jean whatsis here with whoosis Coyne?”
“Did I. I must get the recipe for that dress.”
Jean shuddered. This was a classic predicament, but she couldn’t recall the classic reaction.
“Well, darling, you and your gold lame. What I say is, after gold lame, what is there?”
“There’s always the platinum-studded cardigan.”
Gold lame? Platinum-studded cardigan? Hiding out in the bathroom? LOVE IT!