In Wolves Clothing – guest post by author Katherine Gleason
One of the best things about Steampunk is FASHION! I’m delighted to host author Katherine Gleason, author of the amazing book Anatomy of Steampunk: The Fashion of Victorian Futurism. This book isn’t just gorgeous, it’s inspiring, outlandish, and filled with handy do-it-yourself tips so you, too, can join the fun. And not only do we get the pleasure of Katherine’s presence, she’s talking about fashion in Joan Aiken, one of my favourite reads growing up.
Remember, EVERY comment made on one of my guests’ blogs in December will be entered for a $50 Amazon gift certificate! So, read on and win!
I have been rereading Joan Aiken. Specifically, her children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962). I was obsessed with this book as a child, and in fact, read it so many times that I had the first page memorized. In case you don’t know, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is the first book in a series set in an alternate version of nineteenth century England. Aiken imagines that King James II was not deposed in 1688 and his descendant James III, a Stuart, sits on the throne. (Maybe someone out there can explain how the succession would have gone had James II not been overthrown?) In this first book, there’s very little political background, though. What you get in the novel is Dickensian melodrama, complete with wolves, an evil governess, orphans, devoted servants, privation, and a noble savage-type who lives in the woods and raises geese. Plus lots of snow and luxurious garments. Maybe I’m noticing the outfits because my last book, Anatomy of Steampunk: The Fashion of Victorian Futurism, focused on clothing. But I think that Aiken foregrounds the characters’ ensembles a bit, too.
In the opening paragraph of the book—a long establishing shot that zooms in on Willoughby Chase, a great house of many wings, staircases, and passageways, and the home of Bonnie Green—Aiken uses words usually associated with clothing. “Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills….” Pleated, as if the hills are the folds of a skirt. A few sentences later: “…the Chase looked an inviting home—a warm and welcoming stronghold. Its rosy herringbone brick was bright and well-cared-for…” Rosy herringbone sounds cozy, like a tweed suit, probably a woman’s suit, no? Then we meet our heroine, Bonnie Green, who says: “Will she be here soon, Pattern? Will she?” Yes, her maid’s name is Pattern, and yes, she’s an expert seamstress. (Okay, there’s lots of problematic class stuff in this book!) Pattern is engaged in “folding and goffering the frills of twenty lace petticoats.” Twenty! That’s a lot of petticoats. Presumably they are white, too, like the snow and the pleated hills. (“To goffer” means to iron in ridges or narrow pleats.)
Bonnie is expecting her cousin Sylvia and, at the sounds of an arrival, runs down the main staircase, trips, and lands on the floor of the entrance hall at the feet of a stranger. “Her impetuosity brought her in a heap to the feet of an immensely tall, thin lady, clad from neck to toe in a traveling dress of swathed gray twill, with a stiff collar, dark glasses, and dull green buttoned boots.” She is Miss Slighcarp, all in gray—like a wolf. Plus she is too tall and too thin. Is Aiken cluing us in to the new governess’s character?
A few paragraphs later, Bonnie’s father, who, in the book, is considered to be unquestioningly good, is described via his watch and his waistcoat: “ ‘The dressing bell,’ said Sir Willoughby, looking at a handsome gold watch, slung on a chain across his ample waistcoat.” In contrast, to the governess, he does not sound thin. Meanwhile, Bonnie’s father has given her permission to go meet her cousin’s train, and she is fetching her warmest bonnet and pelisse. Fashionable in the early nineteenth century, the pelisse is a close-fitting woman’s coat modeled on men’s military jackets, which, in turn, had been adapted from the short fur-trimmed jackets of seventeenth century Hungarian mercenaries. (As skirts and crinolines grew wider, in the 1840s and 1850s, the pelisse fell out of favor and was replaced by cloaks, mantles, and shawls.)
In contrast to the luxury of life at Willoughby Chase, we are soon treated to a scene of genteel poverty. Sylvia and Aunt Jane, in preparation for Sylvia’s journey, are making Sylvia’s clothes from “a very beautiful, but old, curtain of white Chinese brocade.” The curtain must be quiet big; employing “tiny stitches” they manage to sew “several chemises, petticoats, pantalettes, dresses, and even a bonnet.” Weeping as she works, Aunt Jane says: “I do so like to see a little girl dressed all in white.” Clearly, Sylvia is some kind of angel. And in another few sentences her aunt calls her just that.
After a long train ride, an encounter with a stranger, and a scary delay due to wolves, Sylvia arrives at Willoughby Chase and meets her spirited cousin. Despite the fact that Bonnie’s parents are about to leave on a long voyage, they taken the time to have new and flattering clothes made up for Sylvia. They even have six pairs of ice skates ready for her to choose from. As Bonnie says: “…we thought one of them was certain to fit.” And Pattern promises to run up a dress for her doll, too.
I don’t want to issue too many spoilers, but it isn’t until Miss Slighcarp appears wearing one of Lady Green’s dresses “a draped gown of old gold velvet with ruby buttons” that Bonnie grasps the true nature of her greedy and conniving new governess. Later in the book, there are orphans in dehumanizing uniforms, and then, when Bonnie and her cousin need help the most, Bonnie finds, hidden behind straw bales, “two warm suits of clothes, a boy’s, with breeches and waistcoat, and a girl’s, with a thick woolen skirt and petticoat. Both were of coarse material such as tinker children wear, but well and stoutly made, and both had beautiful thick sheepskin jackets, lined with their own wool.” These outfits—which were made by the loyal and virtuous Pattern—facilitate an escape. And I don’t want to say much more! Read, or reread, the book, enjoy, the Dickensian character names, the outfits, and most of all the drama, all packed into a satisfying 181 paperback pages.
Katherine Gleason is the author of more than thirty books, including Anatomy of Steampunk: The Fashion of Victorian Futurism and Alexander McQueen: Evolution, a book about the late designer’s runway shows.
Anatomy of Steampunk: The Fashion of Victorian Futurism