Sunday, January 9, 2011

On the joys of vulgarity (1)

Linda Grant

The Observant Reader might have noticed that my last blog flourished the word vulgar. It's one I haven't heard, let alone used, in decades, possibly since I left England, and I'm grateful to Linda Grant for reminding me of it.
I'm re-reading her The Thoughtful Dresser. It disappointed me rather when I read it for the first time a few years ago because, although (or perhaps because) I'm vitally interested in the topic, I found its defensive stance frustrating. Her exploration of what dress means, aesthetically, socially and psychologically, was aimed not at the likes of me but at those who believe anything fashion- or appearance-related is demeaning and trivial, if not downright criminal and immoral.
Her website of the same name bears the epigram, "Because you can't have depths without surfaces." A declaration she uttered defiantly down the line from London when I interviewed after her 2000 Orange Prize win for When I Lived in Modern Times.
It's a cute slogan but not a convincing one. Because the plain truth is there's nothing more incomprehsible than other's obsessions - whether it's kicking, hitting or throwing balls around, devoting years to your family history or hours to cooking dishes containing 37 ingredients that are eaten in three minutes. 

Lois McMaster Bujold
Or writing science fiction, in the case of Lois McMaster Bujold. She has apparently said that, "When you can't do something truly useful, you tend to vent the pent up energy in something useless but available, like snappy dressing."
I sympathise with Grant's irritation at the assumption that smart women aren't interested in how they or other people look, and its infuriating inversion: that if you do care you are, ergo, not smart.
It's just that intellectual argument for our own obsessions will always look thin and is in any case beside the point. We're interested/obsessed because we're interested/obsessed. And, so long as it does others no harm, surely that's the end of the matter.

Elizabeth Bowen

Grant quotes the stylish Elizabeth Bowen (who was herself no intellectual light-weight) at the front of her book: "On the subject of dress almost no one, for one or another reason, feels truly indifferent: if their own clothes do not concern them, somebody else's do."
Which is probably the only riposte worth making to the "serious-minded" brigade.
But look - my defence of the position that an interest in personal style needs no defence has taken enough of this morning's time and energy. I'll have to get to the joys of vulgarity another day.

No comments:

Post a Comment