What I read this week to no externally worthwhile purpose: romantic plots, herein reviewed with Men’s Fashion Notes.  That way, maybe both sexes will enjoy this post.  I kind of doubt it though. 

French, 1720'sTwo romance novels, both by Mary Balogh:  Thief of Dreams (1998) ; and Heartless (1995), both New York: Jove/Penguin Putnam and I think both out of print. 

Both are set in Georgian period, before the French revolution.  If you were poor, you were constantly taking off your hat to people of greater rank; and if you didn’t have a hat, you tugged your forelock and kept your eyes down.  If you were rich, you had to kiss your papa’s emerald signet ring upon leaving his presence.  Art history teaches that courtiers had to be in constant “pose” or “attitude”: to show a graceful curve with one’s body and to walk with a mincing step: see above.  At any rate, it is great fun and a kind of culture-bending experience to read about men who wear lace, makeup, patches, silk brocade, and bows–carry jewelled swords, fans, and enamel snuffboxes–and say things like, “By my life, the roses pale next to your beauty.” Underneath the dandyism, they were predacious barflies and gamblers.  All you have to do for confirmation is read 18th century French novels.  In these novels, however, the underlying character of the hero is not completely given over to dalliance–just enough for entertainment purposes.  And it must have been fun: it took the guillotine to change men into the drab suits they wear today.

Beau Brummel, ca. 1800Beau Brummel set the taste for English fashion to way understated: clean linen, many baths, no ruffles, and an expensive simplicity.  I read two books set in that time period: Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax (1959) and Venetia ( ).  Both of these books are such old friends I don’t even have to start at the beginning any more.  Ms. Heyer is the most wonderful writer: she can plot.  The books are little machines that just keep you riveted from one event to the next, and laughing all the way to the end.  Her characters are all different in personality and language.  Such craft.  After reading them for plotting tips, I realized that its the comic characters that create the situations of plot in many of her books,: runaway children, staggeringly vain ingenues, testy, nerd-like scholars, and empty-headed fops.  But not always: in both Ajax and Venetia, the hero has an outsider’s view of social norms (even though he is conversant in all of them) and they use the humorous perspective to endure absurdities of daily life.  Yet Hugo Darracott in Ajax and Damerel in Venetia are totally different persons.  Hugo uses humor to fool everyone and insinuate himself into the center of control and leadership, while Damerel has used humor to distance himself from anything that would fit him for his inherited milieu.

On the Strut, ca. 1790Likewise, they dress differently.  According to Heyer, there was a signature look from each of the tailors as well: Stultz more ornate, with exaggerated shoulders and nipped waists, beloved by the dandy set; Scott, for military neatness and understated ease (that’s Hugo’s style, and for the best since he is huge) and Weston as the ne plus ultra for the sportsman and rake–simple, but with intense fit and a certain sheen.  I think the guy in red to the left is a Stultz (kind of like Claude in the Unknown Ajax, only Claude hovers somewhere slightly beyond the Stultz idea of propriety–a fop).  Brummel was a Weston, or perhaps Weston’s ideal. In Ajax, Vincent wears Weston, and carries no ornaments save a snuffbox and a quizzing glass.  In Venetia, the hero is Damerel, and I always imagine him as a sloppy, dissolute Weston; but Venetia’s Uncle Hendred is also a Weston–formal and plain, neat, trim, and exuding underlying quality. 

Calvin KleinSkipping forward about 180 years in both fashion and courtship styles, much less writing styles: I read Susan Isaacs’ Any place I hang my hat.  (2004).  NY: Scribner/Simon & Schuster.   Amy is unhampered by corsets but still hampered by family: not for social status, as she has risen above a difficult background to become a physically-fit, attractive, Ivy-League educated New York journalist.  Yet these accomplishments don’t erase the difficulties of growing up without a mother or father, and being raised by an erratic grandmother.  The plight of one minor character in search of family ties spurs her to investigate her own past, and with it, her emotional distance from others.   This book is clearly Amy’s, and I love her and the language she speaks: but John stands as the emotional standard.  He’s no doormat, either: he has a reality-based emotional health that can call it quits when it’s not working out.   The new hero is without a valet: he goes to the gym instead.  John wears t-shirts instead of neckcloths.  But he’s a hero all the same. 

I recommend them all–your beach reads for the week.