“The Romance Of Certain Old Clothes”*: a second rummage through the wardrobe…

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There’s something faintly sinister about a wardrobe, I’ve always thought. Especially those old free-standing ones with mirrored doors that swing silently open in the night or, caught by a faint draught, greet you with a blank glassy smile as you enter a bedroom. Wardrobes are like creepy little houses or sarcophagi, quite large enough to contain a child or small adult. Think of Lillian Gish whirling around in the closet, besieged by her abusive father in the silent classic BROKEN BLOSSOMS. The crack in the cupboard door that triggered the peculiar goings-on of VENUS IN FURS. Consider Jane Eyre falling into a “species of fit” in Mrs Reed’s terrible Red Room with its huge mahogany wardrobe of secret drawers. And of course, the wardrobe portals into the Kingdom of Narnia. My grandmother used to tell me hair-raising stories of her childhood in the late 1890’s – of her brothers concealing themselves in the wardrobe before nightfall, then scratching and groaning within once the gas was extinguished. Especially terrifying as the little Eileen was then reading aloud the new best-seller, DRACULA, to her baby sister before lights out.

The dark enclosed space of a wardrobe is a great incubator of smells. When I was a tot, clothes cupboards were hung with those now illegal white crystalline moth balls¤, strung with violet silk thread. They could have passed for iced peppermint creams and the stinging luscious odour of napthalene made my mouth water. There was the redolence of soft worn suede and leather from shoes; a touch of fur from hats and tippets; and the tantalising papery forbidden whiff of hidden Christmas presents, supposedly out of reach but accessed by climbing the shelves or lunging with a coat hanger.

I remember scouring out the entire interior of a deal wardrobe – acquired second hand – and then soaking the wood with perfume, but within a couple of days the smells of dust, fust and must were back. Wardrobes infallibly absorb the odour of old clothes; and of unaired garments put back on the rail directly after use, still damp with the owner’s oils and fluids and scents. The sort of conditions the moth adore¤. Do you remember that scene in DANCE WITH A STRANGER when Miranda Richardson slips off her cocktail frock, impregnated with all the odours of a 1950’s night club, and hangs it straight back in the cupboard all hot and reeking? Was this shtik cunningly thought out, a clue to a slovenly character? I could think of nothing else for the rest of the movie.

As clothes and the obligation to wear them came into being as the direct consequence of Sin and the Fall of Man, it is no wonder that they have spawned an extensive occult lore of their own. I hope you never put a new pair of shoes on the table? You might easily do so, just in from a shopping spree and, like Thora Hird, eager for a Cup-a-Soup: but you are courting disaster. Never throw your hat onto the bed. If you should happen to retrieve someone’s dropped glove, discourage the wearer from thanking you: that’s as good as a curse. A stray thread on your jacket? Expect a letter. Put on a garment inside out? You must wear it so for the rest of the day or risk the worst. And that aggravating spiky itch that’s driving you mad – that’s a monkey’s eyebrow caught in your jumper. Contrariwise, you have your lucky pink shirt, that special interview suit, the right shoe always put on before the left, the holy medal sewn in your garter.

Now, we all have our favourite auspicious and “effective” fragrances to be sure but no true superstitions have yet – I think – become attached to scent: which is odd when you think of how ancient a phenomenon perfume is. But then fragrance, being intrinsically and inherently magical & be-glamoured, is already pregnant with ideas of enchantment and occult power. Explaining the power of scent is attempting the impossible: all we can do is attempt to harness it, whether in this world or the next.

Ghost stories and tales of the supernatural draw heavily on the odour of clothes, as well as referencing the way in which garments are like cast off shells, shaped by the wearer’s limbs to revive as (usually malevolent) simulacra of the late owner.  Gloves and shoes in particular are stretched and moulded to recreate an image of body parts almost as evocative as the plaster casts of the victims at Pompeii. Shady hats, veils and deep hoods hide the horror of a spectral face not to be imagined. Stories trade on the weirdness of smell, the way perfume so instantly and uncannily at once evokes a time, a place, a human signature. A fragrance or an odour lives on, when everything else of a person is dead. Barbara Cartland used to talk of the scent of carnations inexplicably filling a room to announce the presence of her late brother. Whether or not you believe in phantoms there can be no doubt that a perfume is in itself a ghost, a shadow of associations and people long gone, bringing the past with startling immediacy into the present.

As the ghost story is intended to disconcert, writers evoke the smells that inflame our animal instincts: those baser reactions that many of us would prefer to airbrush out of the picture. So over and again we read of the smell of rot and decay, or the odour of demonic seduction. Sometimes the latter originates in the commercial world of the living, thus exacerbating horror with the contrast of the banal. A bottle of perfume becomes an accessory to evil. So, “Madam’s funny scent” plays a key role in THE HAUNTED SAUCEPAN¤¤, the record of an undead poisoner:

“There grew a heavy scent in the air, like patchouli, I think…at any rate a definite perfume that seemed to herald Whatever approached…The dog…moaned and whimpered…”

Piver’s disreputable and tarty Trefle Incarnat – of which Lizzie Ostrom writes so brilliantly in her new book¤¤¤ – is smelled disapprovingly in Elizabeth Bowen’s THE CAT JUMPS. Elizabeth Taylor’s inverted, inventive POOR GIRL is full of smells, especially a “heavy scent, dry and musky” – perhaps Mitsouko – which snakes back in time from the 1920’s to ruin the character of a Victorian governess:

“The schoolroom this evening seemed to have been wreathed about with a strange miasma; the innocent nature of the place polluted in a way which she could not understand…the scent had clung about her clothes…”

Even the perfume itself may be diabolically corrupted:

“My sister ran in, a scent-spray in her hand, crying:

‘It’s not scent any more. I tried it. It smells like the attic – ‘

She was squeezing the bulb and spraying us violently; and I could not smell the dead smell of the loft, but the sweetness, like a ladylike animal, of old kid gloves…”¤¤¤¤

Then there’s “the breath of benzine” impregnating the murderous white kid  in HAND IN GLOVE (the inimitable Bowen again):

“She began to choke among the sachets and tissue – then the glove let go, hurled her back, and made its leap at her throat. It was a marvel that anything so dainty should be so strong…”

(It wasn’t the rats Aunt Elysia had heard scuttering in the attic, you see; it was those gloves).

No doubt about it, gloves take the palm as the most frequent agents of evil, those horrors animated by the energies of vanished vengeful hands:

“Yes, and the gloves: the dark green gloves…the air was very close and…I smelt that curious perfume…I can most nearly describe it as resembling decaying roses…rank and overwhelming…”¤¤¤¤¤

I should recommend that you keep your wardrobe locked at all times, and the key about your person.

* with great respect to M.R. James.

¤ anyone who has been unfortunate
enough to have experienced a moth infestation will know the sense of an uncontrolled, destructive & almost demonic force taking possession of their belongings.

¤¤ by Margery Lawrence

¤¤¤ Lizzie Ostrom – PERFUME: A CENTURY OF SCENTS. Hutchinson £16.99.

¤¤¤¤ Mary Butts – WITH & WITHOUT BUTTONS.

¤¤¤¤¤ Elizabeth Jane Howard – LEFT LUGGAGE.

PS: You might also enjoy…THE MOST BEAUTIFUL DRESS IN THE WORLD by the inimitable Shena Mackay:

” Harriet laid the dress in the washing-up bowl and turned on the taps gently like someone dropping earth on a coffin…”

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