“Dresses All Worn Long in the Evening”: Fashion in the “Provincial Lady” Diaries of E. M. Delafield

(In October, I attended the Costume Society of America Southeastern/Mid-Atlantic Symposium in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. My debut as a conference speaker! I presented this paper.) 

"Edmée Elizabeth Monica Dashwood (née de la Pasture)", Howard Coster, ca. 1938; National Portrait Gallery x10669

Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture Dashwood (1890-1943), better known by her punning nom de plume E. M. Delafield, penned dozens of novels and plays about middle- and upper-class British society in her short life. She was already a successful author when Margaret Mackworth, Viscountess Rhondda, asked her to write a "space-filler" for the feminist literary magazine, Time and Tide, in 1929. This filler, very much based on the author's life and acquaintances, was titled Diary of a Provincial Lady, serially printed, and eventually published in book form in 1930.

The unnamed protagonist's social standing is only indirectly stated: she is certainly below the elegant Lady Boxe, whose attitude toward her can only be described as condescending, and whose family employs the Provincial Lady's husband as its estate agent, but it's clear that she's far from the bottom of the social scale. The lady's own family is supported by her husband's salary and her own writing, which is on a much smaller scale than Delafield's (despite regular issues with money that even lead to the repeated pawning of her inherited diamond ring), they employ several servants (a cook, a parlormaid, a gardener, and a French governess), and it's clear that the middle-class townsfolk look up to her as a social superior in some fashion. A good comparison for the purposes of illustration could be several of Jane Austen's heroines – the Bennet or Dashwood sisters, perhaps, who are members of the self-sustaining, landed, and untitled gentry whose social circle includes very few but significant titled people – or even Austen herself, who was the daughter of a clergyman rather than the landed gentry. However, the Provincial Lady was not based on Austen or on any fictional creation, but on Delafield: both character and creator were a member of the gentry with a grumpy estate-agent husband, two children, a difficult French governess, and a condescending aristocratic neighbor. The in-jokes were clear to readers in the know, but they also worked perfectly for those who weren't, creating a well-rounded and very relatable character.

Like Austen, Delafield was acutely aware of the shades of grey in the social system, but unlike Austen, Delafield reflected that awareness in her text through extensive use of costume descriptions. The main character and authorial stand-in frets about her dress constantly: it's too flimsy or heavy for the weather, it's too worn out for the party, it's unflattering to her coloring or figure. Her hair gets overly mussed by the wind, and her makeup is dowdy. She also notices when another woman looks attractively fashionable, ultra-fashionable, or unfashionable – and most unnamed characters are identified by a significant item of clothing that they wear.

BOOK I (1929-1930) – CHANGING FASHIONS

The most significant theme in the clothing descriptions in the first book of the series is the way that changes in fashion and one's ability to keep up with them, or interest in doing the same, reflect on an individual's personality or pocketbook. As this point in time saw several dramatic changes to women's dress, it's unsurprising that these worked their way into the text.

In an early "entry" in the diary, the Vicar's wife pays a call on the protagonist, and they discuss "the Riviera, the new waist-line, choir-practice, the servant question, and Ramsay MacDonald." After several years of dresses and ensembles being made with no waist, or with the waist placed quite low on the hips, the gradual rise to the high hip and then the natural waistline was of great interest to the fashion-conscious consumer. Some dresses could be altered easily by shifting belt loops, but those with a low waist seam would be more difficult to salvage.

McCall's Magazine, April 1930

Less than a week after this conversation, the Provincial Lady attends a dinner with distinguished literary figures at Lady Boxe's home, where the hostess descends the staircase in the hall "wearing silver lace frock that nearly touches the floor all round, and has new waist-line. This may or may not be becoming, but has effect of making everybody else's frock look out-of-date." Lady Boxe is a foil for the Provincial Lady, amplifying if not causing the Lady's feelings of self-consciousness: she has clearly bought a new and fashionable gown within the past few months (from London, if not directly from Paris), while the Lady has had to make do with an older frock that's been altered by the family's governess.

Another aspect of Lady Boxe's up-to-date gown that shames "everybody else's frock" is the length. Just as the waistline rose relatively quickly after several years of a uniform lowness, the fashionable hemline had been in the same place since late 1924: around the bottom of the kneecap. In 1928, the fashion industry began flirting with a high-low hem; it became more pronounced by 1929, and an ankle-length or full-length skirt was permissible in more formal contexts by 1930. (Mid-calf would be the common fashionable length through the early 1930s.)

Mabs Fashions, June 1930

While the changes to the fashionable waistline do not turn up in many other descriptions in the book, the length of a skirt is occasionally used as an oblique reference to the sensibility of the character wearing it. At one point, the Lady meets Mrs. Blenkinsop's Cousin Maud – a talkative older woman who drives a car and believes in the benefits of fresh air; she wears "brick-red sweater – feel sure she knitted it herself – tweed skirt, longer at the back than in front – and large row of pearl beads. Has very hearty and emphatic manner, and uses many slang expressions." The fact that Cousin Maud is so fashion-conscious as to have adopted the new hemline goes toward her other youthful traits, which all set her apart from the querulous Mrs. Blenkinsop, who wears black with jet ornaments like a Victorian widow.

Miss Pankerton is a third contrasting figure. She is said by the townsfolk to have been at Oxford, wears pince-nez spectacles, and loves to discuss her own unconventionality. When she pays a call on the Lady, she wears a "hand-woven blue jumper, wider in front than in the back, very short skirt, and wholly incredible small black béret." It's fairly clear that Miss Pankerton is the kind of person who ostentatiously "doesn't care about fashion" and possibly even takes pride in the fact that her skirt is noticeably shorter than Maud's, the Provincial Lady's, and Lady Boxe's.

There is a very brief reference to the backless trend in this book, when the Lady is preparing for one of Lady Boxe's parties. "Ask Robert whether he thinks I had better wear my Blue or my Black-and-gold at Lady B.'s. He says that either will do. Ask if he can remember which one I wore last time. He cannot. Mademoiselle says it was the Blue, and offers to make slight alterations to Black-and-gold which will, she says, render it unrecognisable. I accept, and she cuts large pieces out of the back of it." As the hemline grew lower, so did the back of the neckline, a transition which could be shocking to many. It is most likely that Mademoiselle is somewhat ahead of the curve, as even Lady B. is not described as having a low back-neckline in her evening dress with the new waistline and a hem that touches the floor all the way around. (There is also a mention in the second book of a "highly-finished product of modern civilization, in white satin with no back and very little front.")

There is also a short discussion of hairstyling. At the party where the Lady wears her newly-backless gown, several hours after the Provincial Lady got a haircut and manicure, "Lady in blue tapestry takes down her hair, which she says she is growing, and puts it up again. We all begin to talk about hair. Depressed to find that everybody in the world, except apparently myself, has grown, or is growing, long hair again. Lady B. says that Nowadays, there Isn't a Shingled Head to be seen anywhere, either in London, Paris, or New York. Nonsense." Irene Castle bobbed her hair in 1916, and by the early 1920s the bob was commonplace; it's clear from photographic portraits of Delafield through the decade that she was fond of short hair, rather than the low buns or false bobs used by women who were reluctant to make the cut. Many did think, at the turn of the decade, that the short cut had had its day – even Chanel stated in 1931 that "long hair would be coming back into general fashion soon" – but hair that was actually long enough to put up did not become highly fashionable until the second half of the decade. While the very short shingle cut lost ground to styles involving curls, the Lady's view that long hair coming back was "nonsense" is fairly accurate.

BOOK II (1932) – GLAMOUR AND THE ORDINARY

The second book in the series, The Provincial Lady Goes Further, was published in 1932. Its basic premise is that the Provincial Lady received a sizable royalty cheque for the first set of installments of her diary in Time and Tide, and uses it to get a flat in London – literally going further. By this point, the changes in waistline and hemline are no longer such pressing issues; the more significant one is the juxtaposition between the Provincial Lady's humorous and relatable ordinariness and the glamour she encounters in London, particularly that of her old school friend Pamela Pringle. Where Lady Boxe is a moneyed and attractive acquaintance who keeps on top of fashion, Pamela chases trends and lives the scandalous high life.

Pamela's first appearance in the book is fairly conventional: she "rushes out of the drawing-room, wearing evening dress and grey fur coat with enormous collar." Large collars were a staple of fashion for several decades, so this is less a comment about bleeding-edge glamour and more about her personal sumptuous wealth. Her second appearance is less conventional, at a party where she "surges up in a pair of blue satin pyjamas and an immense cigarette holder …" Evening pyjamas were well-established in women's fashion by this time, but while they were initially worn for informal lounging at home, by 1931 the "Bright Young People" were wearing them to formal dinners at home or in the homes of close friends – the most radical even to more public events like the theatre. Pamela, as a contemporary of the autobiographical protagonist, can be assumed to be a little over 40, is hardly one of that group by nature, but she fits in by retaining a youthful appearance and wearing daring and hyper-fashionable dress.

McCall's Magazine, 1931 - note some long-ish hair!

Another aspect of Pamela's outfit in this scene is "brilliant coral lip-stick" (which the Lady can barely imagine sporting in her country church), and in another, orange lipstick; at one point, the Lady notes that everybody in London seems to be wearing vermilion on their lips, and a guest at another party in a fourth entry wears orange nail varnish.
In the previous decade, cosmetics that helped a woman attain a look that mimicked natural beauty had become accepted for the refined middle and upper classes: the next step would be for violently unnatural shades to be seen as acceptable. It's clear in the text that this has not yet happened in the Lady's provincial village, even for the fashion-forward Lady Boxe, and that she finds it somewhat startling but also welcome. (The Lady herself is far from conservative on a personal level, socially or politically.)

Advertisement for Savage Lipstick, 1934

A third fashion that startles the narrator relates to headwear. One woman is described in a "bran-new hat about the size of a saucer with little plume over one eye", and later on the Lady feels that "everybody in the World except myself is wearing … a tiny hat on extreme back of head … " When she does finally attempt to buy into the world of fashionable headgear, she has to "try on at least eighteen hats … and finally select one with a brim – which is not, says the assistant, being worn at all now, but after all, there's no telling when they may come in again." The enveloping cloche that covers the hair, warms the head, and may or may not shade the eyes was a practical choice for the ordinary woman who needs a functional hat, but the sole purpose of a hat is not function. A glamorous hat may be closer to a fascinator than to a sunbonnet.

BOOK IV (1940) – PHONEY FASHION

The third book, The Provincial Lady in America, published in 1934, chronicles the narrator's lecture tour across the pond and is, of course, based on Delafield's experience after doing the same herself; while it is a good read, it offers very little for this analysis. There is relatively little and vague costume description in the text, and on the whole the basic point is that the Provincial Lady is frazzled by her journeying and dazzled by the youth, wealth, and beauty of the young women she encounters in the United States. So I have skipped over it to discuss the fourth, The Provincial Lady in Wartime (1940), which takes a radically different view on fashion.

In this installment, which picks up after a long break, the Lady goes back to London in order to find some sort of government work, and ends up volunteering in an Air Raid Precautions canteen at the Adelphi Hotel before being offered an actual job with the Ministry of Information. The short period when it is set – September through November 1939 – is part of what is known as the "Phoney War," the early months of World War II, after Germany had invaded Poland but before it began moving north. British women prepared to mobilize on the home front as they had in World War I (Delafield had acted as a Volunteer Aid Detachment nurse during World War I, and the Provincial Lady has that explicitly written in as her backstory as well), but there was more enthusiasm than there were actual things to be done, and it is this atmosphere of "hurry up and wait" that Delafield depicted in her novel. When the Provincial Lady comes to London, she enters a world mostly made up of women determined to be useful.

In this new situation, a new type of dress is called for. The more conservative choice the Lady notes in her time volunteering in a canteen is an overall made out of floral-patterned cretonne, a cheap fabric much like chintz, but with a dull finish. Unlike the modern conception of overalls, this overall was a sensible dress or apron that would protect everyday clothes from dust, dirt, and food stains, and as such it was perfectly suitable for cooking or serving food and drinks in a canteen.

Service overall pattern, from the Haslam Dresscutting System Illustrated Book of Lingerie etc. No. 4, ca. 1940

Of vastly more interest to the Provincial Lady were the trousers and knitted jumpers (sweaters) that most of the women were wearing. Once she arrives in London, she sees that "trousered women are standing and walking about in every direction," and she notes the trousers she sees on other volunteers with great frequency. Age is no limiting factor: the Lady's acquaintance Pussy Winter-Gammon "cannot possibly be less than sixty-six, but has put herself into diminutive pair of blue trousers, short-sleeved wool jumper, and wears her hair, which is snow-white, in roguish mop of curls bolt upright all over her head." Even the Lady, who is not normally very daring in her clothing choices, purchases both a flowered cretonne overall and a pair of navy blue slacks, and wears both happily. A little over a month later, she is "completely carried away by navy-blue siren suit, with zip fastener – persuade myself that it is not only practical, warm and inexpensive – which it is – but indispensable as well, and go straight in and buy it for Serena's party." In the decade prior to World War II, trousers gained traction as an acceptable garment for women doing physical labor or participating in sports, but the increased amount of women in previously masculine positions helped to open them up to women who previously hadn't done physical labor or been in a position to play sports. The "mannish" trend of the 1930s helped to make garments like trousers a delicious forbidden treat, and the way Delafield deals with them, it's clear that the appeal was not just practical. Women liked the way that trousers looked, she implies, and mainly needed an excuse to put them on, rather than being forced into them by the requirements of their jobs and then discovering how nice they can be. Delafield could not have known when she wrote this book, of course, that trousers would remain in women's closets after the war and that she was showing her autobiographical narrator to be on the right side of history rather than simply partaking in a brief loosening of standards.

Weldon So-Easy Pattern No. 19, ca. 1940

Delafield's autobiographical fiction offered her a chance to share her personal impressions of contemporary fashions, but we cannot take her writing as absolute fact. As anyone who tells self-deprecating stories about oneself knows, there is a strong impulse to exaggerate for humorous or narrative effect – and of course, the purpose of the Provincial Lady Diaries was not to accurately convey information about dress. But by reading them in conjunction with, for instance, fashion magazines, one does gain a certain amount of information about the way that Delafield herself – and presumably the readers who found her stand-in relatable – viewed the way that her society dressed, made themselves up, and did their hair.

SOURCES

Arnold, Rebecca. "Modern Fashions for Modern Women: The Evolution of New York Sportswear in the 1930s." Costume vol. 41, issue 1 (2007). 111-125, DOI: 10.1179/174963007X182381

Delafield, E. M. Diary of a Provincial Lady. Pan Macmillan, 2016

Marketti, Sara B & Emily Thomsen Angstman "The Trend for Mannish Suits in the 1930s." Dress vol. 39, issue 2 (2013). 135-152, DOI: 10.1179/0361211213Z.00000000020

Peiss, Kathy. Hope in a Jar: the Making of America's Beauty Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Powell, Violet. Life of a Provincial Lady: A Study of E. M. Delafield and Her Works. London: Heinneman, 1988.

Vaughan, Hal. Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War. (New York: Knopf Doubleday: 2012)

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