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Letter to a Girl

Part of the fun of a vintage non-fiction book is finding the entire thing so out of date that it’s laughable. That’s exactly what I expected to find when I discovered James Laver’s 1946 edition of A Letter to a Girl on the Future of Clothes.

It’s part of a series of books published by Home and Van Thal Ltd., a London publisher that commissioned such titles as A Letter to My Son, by Osbert Sitwell; Recipe for Reading, by Herbert Van Thal; Letter to an Undertaker, by Peter De Polnay; and Letter to a Young Politician, by Vyvyan Adams. All are little hardcover tombs loaded with wit, humor and practical advice, penned by authors who would be known today as “subject matter experts.”

Mr. Laver, an author and the former curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, has written this short treatise for an undetermined 10-year-old girl to read when she turns 20—which renders an interesting effect: it treats the present as past before it has even happened. In it, Laver declares that fashion isn’t the superficial subject so many people imagine.

Laver wonders about such things as:

“Why do we wear the clothes we do? There is nothing more intimately part of ourselves than the clothes we wear and it often astonishes me that there is so little curiosity about them.”

I’ll second that, James.

He gives a context for another way to talk about clothes.

“It consists in an endeavor to delve deeper into the subject than fashion journalists are likely to do, to be concerned not only with the What, but with the When, the How and the Why. The When would involve us in at least a cursory survey of the whole history of Fashion; the How would necessitate the same enquiry in breadth as well as in length, and the Why would take us into the very depths of the human psyche, making our way as best we could through the jungles of politics and economics and the swamps of psycho-analysis.”

This is the terrain that today’s fashion bloggers can stake out better than any fashion magazine.

He explores our mysterious inability to actually see the present.

In every age, we’re unable to identify the typical fashion of the present year or era. It is only after time passes that we can arrive at the main trends and essential lines. In the present, we’ll insist that we dress to suit ourselves. “The present,” he says “runs through our fingers so quickly that we cannot even see it until it has become the past.”

Well, yes. It’s the same phenomenon that helped me cull pleated pants from my wardrobe despite the fact that I wore them exclusively 10 years ago. I simply could not see how they looked when I was actually wearing them every day.

He dissects the very nature of a trend.

Why do all women “happen to like” the same clothes at the same moment in time and despise it a short time later? Why do we peer into our closets and insist that we have nothing to wear when there is a closet full of choices? Laver distills the explanation into three principles: 1) utility or how wearable and comfortable is it for one’s daily activities 2) attraction or whether it is a joy to the eye 3) seduction or the way it draws attention to one charm after another of the human body.

All these things work together to explain why sloping shoulders are the “apex of beauty” in one age when square shoulders trump in another.

One last Laver gem I can’t resist sharing

“Louis XIV, that most gorgeous of monarchs, never washed in his life. He was washed twice; once when he was born and once when his royal, but unsavoury corpse was laid out for burial. For the whole intervening period, he contented himself with dipping his fingers in rose water and sprinkling a few drops on his face.”

…Things I might never have known had I not made my way through Laver’s book, which is a surprisingly relevant discussion of fashion. From this reading, I can only encourage you not just to wear vintage fashion, but to read it.

What about you?

Could you identify something that’s uniquely 2013? Do you really know why you wear what you do? If you had to say so, do you dress more for utility, attraction or seduction? I’d love to hear how you’ve explored it “to the very depths of the human psyche.”

P.S. The vintage linen hanky underneath the book in the photo above can be purchased at my Etsy shop for $7. I currently have  some very sweet vintage jewelry there, too.

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.