“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…”

Empress of India

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At some point before her marriage in 1925, my paternal grandmother – the one I never knew – took ship with friends for India (‘P.O.S.H.’) on a visit of evidently some months. The strange thing to me is that nearly every detail of this romantic rite of passage was so rapidly all but lost in family tradition. We do not know even whether Phyllis Elliott took her trip before or after the Great War; I suspect it was most likely post-1918 as at the very end of the Edwardian era my grandmother is supposed to have been working as nursemaid in the Scott household, looking after baby Peter, the future ornithologist, while his father sailed south to the fatal Antarctic wastes. By the time I met Phyllis’s surviving fellow-traveller in the 1970’s, that old lady could recall not a thing about the whole enterprise except that all their purchases and acquisitions¤ were smashed to pieces on the voyage home during a violent storm in the Bay of Biscay. I visualised exotic splinters and fragments of sandalwood, ambergris, nacre – “peacocks, apes and ivory” – all over the inner cabin floor. All that survived were a few Benares brass ashtrays (probably originally made in Birmingham for export as was then the eccentric custom) and a tiny stool inlaid with mother of pearl, beside which my infant father was photographed in 1928.

And maybe it was Phyllis who brought home the sari which we discovered in her widower’s house when he died in the early 1960’s. A strange roll came to light, wrapped in brown paper and cellophane bags, emitting a penetrating odour of damp – and of patchouli, India’s own natural moth deterrent. But it was the old-style patchouli, which seemed to give out a much thicker, oilier, sweeter fragrance of that of today: modern patchouli is infinitely more sophisticated – airier, drier, more rarefied  – but not so dramatic nor emphatic and certainly not as pungent. I daresay it is all to do with the process of refining, extraction and what have you. Anyway, we unpacked this bundle and out rolled yard after yard of exquisite cream raw silk, bordered in whorls of emerald green and silver. I remember it cascading down the front stairs from top to bottom, a rippling river of colour and scent, like a flowery meadow in spring. The only thing was, none of us really knew what it was. It was some time before its destined use dawned upon me. And by then it had gone, as things tended to do in our house – “melted away like butter in the sun” as my mother always said.

I learned about the lore of the sari from what was then called a “novelty act” on a popular television programme of those days, a talent show by the name of Opportunity Knocks hosted by the egregious Hughie Green¤¤. A very pretty Indian lady came before the cameras in her petticoat and proceeded to put on her sari, while singing the complicated sartorial instructions as she dressed. I recall now only the single line:

“You wrap it very tightly
Round your you-know-what…”

The act brought the house down with the studio audience, but “you, the viewers at home” did not, alas, vote for the lovely lady’s return the following week. I thought then that the sari was the most romantic costume ever devised for woman and this was even without the benefit of colour television.
I was told later how tricky it can be to wear – easy to trip, hard to manipulate, a little warm if you’re not used to all those bunched yards of fabric. I heard about the variations in arranging the sari, in the styles of different India states – the Gujerat draping for energetic movement or dancing; the gracious formal pleats of Bombay for more sedate occasions.

The sari stores of Leicester began then to fascinate me as they still do today: the huge windows light up rainy days and dark winter nights with glorious waterfalls of gathers, sweeps, draperies and veils in beautiful buoyant bursting colours – turquoise, gold, viridian, flame, oyster, lime, copper, chocolate, scarlet, crimson and of course sugar pink – Diana Vreeland’s celebrated “navy blue of India”. And then the silks and satins, chiffons and taffetas are all over-embroidered and stitched and beaded with thousands of brilliants, metallic threads, sequins and rhinestones. A gorgeous hatch-out of Indian butterflies against the sobrieties of “Brentford Nylons”, “C & A” and the Co-Op.

The other day I saw quoted in a book of grammar¤¤¤ an exciting line from Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister – “She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight”. Some image to unlock the imagination! All the legends and factoids of India come spilling out – and all the scents. The Kashmiri lakes and their palatial houseboats; the fragrant sandalwood and ghee of the burning ghats; the gem mines of Golconda; those “pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar”; the Jewel in the Lotus and “The Jewel In the Crown”; George V and Queen Mary sweltering and gleaming at the Delhi Durbar; “The Mountain of Light” monster diamond kidnapped to become a radiant if unlucky star of the British royal regalia.

I am thrilled by my friend Mr Singh’s memories of peacocks as numerous as crows screeching in the trees on his parents’ Punjabi farm; and progress reports from his Leicester garden flourishing and fertile with chilis, native herbs and spices. Expatriate Indians tell me of tuberoses and mangoes growing back home like weeds in suburban Calcutta back yards. Of the delicate dry fresh smell of Darjeeling tea plantations and the stronger redolence of Assam. Of the addictive mouthwatering spiciness of tuli, the sacred medicinal Indian basil, and of huge garlands of living flowers slung around the necks of visitors; and of ‘cus cus tatis’ – woven blinds of vetiver grass, soaked in water and hung at the windows to repel heat and insects while cooling and perfuming the interior of the house.

The now forgotten but much-filmed & once lauded American novelist Louis Bromfield (“The Rains Came”) wrote of coming into Bombay by ship in the late 1930’s, and of the odours wafting out into the bay from The Gateway To India:

” He sniffed and became aware of a smell he knew at once – a curious mixed smell faintly dominated by the smell of drying fish…’Bombay duck’…but there was more…the compounded odours of spice and woodsmoke, of jasmine and marigold and of dust and copra and cow-dung smoke…(And) the strange excitement of memories: a dangerous smell, but deliciously exciting…there was no smell in the world quite like it.” ¤¤¤¤

That fleshy musky indolic jasmine; the carnal sensuality hidden in tiny white stars – and the flamboyant bitter faint sickliness of the fluorescent orange marigold.

And thus this hidebound old westerner Lemon Wedge imagines, pictures and smells India in his own mind. But now, take heart! we all have the privilege of having our noses indulged and our brains expanded by the olfactory treasure house of NEELA VERMEIRE, newly arrived at LES SENTEURS and as gloriously varied and nuanced as Mother India herself. Why not pop round? You are only a dream away.

¤ which did not include husbands. I don’t know whether the search for a spouse had been one of the original intentions of the voyage out. In those days of the Raj, the “fishing fleet” of wise and foolish British virgins made regular sailings to India in search of suitable matches. In the event, my grandparents first met back in England on the occasion of my great grandmother’s funeral procession becoming jammed in a narrow Leicestershire lane. Phyllis was a lovely mourner, pale and interesting in black crepe; Mr Craven was young and dashing on his motor bike.

¤¤ dramatically & posthumously revealed to have been Paula Yates’s secret father.

¤¤¤ “The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth. A stimulating read.

¤¤¤¤ “Night In Bombay”, first published 1940.