Friday, November 17, 2006

Waiting for the Prada-Devil's Call

from Jacqueline

My name is Our Jacqueline, and I am a magazine-aholic. Not just any magazine, no, I don’t go for the cheap fix when I can have Harpers Bazaar, Vogue, the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, or even Tatler – take me to a well-stocked magazine stand, and I will show you a woman at home among the glossies. I could lash myself for the indulgence, but on the other hand, I have persuaded myself that this addiction is rooted in three loves: the search for well-written articles and essays, social history and fashion (history of). Which brings me to British Vogue.

British Vogue is 90 years old in December, and the story of why it is younger than it’s American sibling has only one degree of separation from my post last week, if you can believe it. Prior to 1916, the American edition of Vogue was imported into Britain. There was no British edition. However, increased U-boat activity in the north Atlantic during the Great War meant that shipments had to be halted, or end up at the bottom of the sea. Despite the privations of war, women of a certain station did not want to miss their monthly Vogue, any more than the publishers wanted to lose money, so the British edition was born.

And that, in turn, brings me to the special anniversary edition, which hit the newsstands right on target for my return-flight reading matter. Frankly, at almost $7, I didn’t want to spend that kind of money on a collection of expensive advertisements, however, copies were plentiful in the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class lounge (that got your attention, didn’t it – more on that in next week’s post), so I snaffled one.

I think this magazine-fetish first took hold when I was a child. We didn’t have magazines in our house – only books and newspapers. Occasionally my mother might buy a Woman’s Own (a British weekly that once had circulation figures that most American editors would sell their souls to the devil for), but that was about it. However, Mrs. Penfold, one of the elderly ladies on our street, subscribed to several magazines, and was also a very nosy old girl. So, during school breaks, when my friend, Jennifer, came around to visit while my mother was at work, we would deliberately make a lot of noise so that Mrs. Penfold would come around with a big pile of magazines “for your mother” – but really to see what we were up to. As soon as she’d gone, you wouldn’t hear a peep out of us for the rest of the day – I confess, we always flicked to the problem pages first.

The glossy-Vogue thing began when Mrs. Musgrave came to teach needlework at my school. Now, I could not stand needlework – hated it. I would rather have read War & Peace time and time again rather than try to accomplish a straight line with a sewing machine. But, at this rather traditional girls’ school, we had to do one “practical” subject along with our academic work, and anything was better than two hours with Miss Chapman, the cookery teacher who picked on me mercilessly.

Now, Mrs. Musgrave was not your ordinary needlework teacher. She had worked “in couture” for Hardy Amies, a leading designer in days of yore, and she had the measure of me in an instant. I think I represented a challenge for her after she asked the question in class, “How might we embellish this blouse to make it more interesting?” and I replied, “Rick-rack with a bit of glue.” For those of you who do not know, “rick-rack” (it may actually be “ric-rak” for all I know), is a very cheap wavy braid that is often sewn onto gypsy-style clothing to add color and texture). Well, at that response, Mrs. Musgrave’s right eyebrow went up, her eyes blazed, and out came the latest copy of Vogue. “Let me tell you what ‘couture’ is all about,” she said. And she did. And she taught me not only to sew, but the finer points of true tailoring, and she did it via the doors that were already open to me, the subjects I loved: History, Creative Writing and English literature. She brought in articles from magazines about the social history of clothing (did you know, for example, that in a time of war shoes are pointier than at other times – I know I’ve mentioned this before, but have you seen the shoes lately?), and she drew my attention to those features she considered well-written and that I might appreciate.

So, since then I have had this thing about magazines. Of course, there are aspects of magazines that annoy me (why is it that those articles featuring houses in Tuscany or Santa Barbara or Nantucket always have shots of a large, well-to-do, Ralph Lauren-ish family sitting at a long table on a perfect patio? The table is groaning with a sumptuous feast and wine is flowing, the children are perfect and no one has to brace their knee against the table to stop it wobbling). And to tell you the truth, much of the fashion doesn’t inspire me at all any more – I think I was always more taken with the construction of the Chanel jacket and how it came to be, rather than who was wearing it and how. It was the clothes of the twenties through fifties that caught my imagination, not the frippery turned out by the likes of Stella McCartney. And even though I am a writer of books, my real ambition was to get the call from Vanity Fair, to see my name on a commissioned feature article ( ... by Jacqueline Winspear. Photography by Annie Leibovitz). Oh, gosh, and how would it feel to be published in the New Yorker (more about my near-miss in next week’s blog – that will get you wondering about the connection between Virgin Atlantic and the New Yorker) or The Atlantic Monthly?

So, here I am, wondering whether to keep this mega-tome, the 90th anniversary issue of Vogue, or whether to pass it on to my sister-in-law, who also seems to have a magazine-fetish. I think I’ll keep it, because it’s history, you see ... there’s Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Patou, Worth ... Mary Quant ... Twiggy ... and even an article by Ian McEwan.

And if you ever need to know how to sew the perfect French seam, I’m your woman.

One more thing – at the end of my year in Mrs. Musgrave’s class, I won the school prize for needlework. The prize? A gorgeous book, especially chosen by my teacher – “Fashion: A Social History.” It was a collection of scholarly essays.


  1. Oh, Jacqueline: you're a woman after my own heart. :-D I adore the fashions from 1900 to the end of the 1950s. So much so that I collect books on fashion and history of fashion from that period of time, and the ancients like Greece, Crete, Egypt, etc.
    What do I use them for? Painting reference and making period fashion dolls clothes. I used the neckline of an antique Worth gown once, to adorn the lady victim in a classic vampire painting.
    Just yesterday, in the Doctor's office, I snagged a copy of Harper's Bazaar off the reading rack, and the only other person in the room - a woman - said to me "you know, you'll never wear anything out of there", meaning the magazine. There were several tart comments I could have made, but I settled with a smile and said "no, but it's full of pretty things to look at".
    I learned to sew at my mother's knee, but I did four years of cooking in high school - and yes, with a teacher who was a total bitch. I might have preferred a sewing class, but cooking is my other survival skill - so I don't complain. :-D
    Welcome home Jacqueline. I hope you had a wonderful time with your family.

  2. from Jacqueline

    Lovely to hear from you, Marianne. Yes, those classic looks really do it for me - and I have always loved vintage clothing stores. My mother saved her "New Look" coat for ages, so when I was about 15 I used to wear it, along with a strategically-placed beret. I thought I looked so glamorous, even though it was hardly the height of fashion then. I was crushed a few years later, to learn that my brother - who had a weekend stall at Camden Lock market in London - had snitched it to sell along with other vintage clothing he was dealing in. "How could you?" I wailed, but it didn't bring that coat back.

  3. Beautifully made and looking fashion and fabrics.... I can close my eyes and remember your lines from one of your books about your heroine getting a deeply wounded witness to Liberty of London to replace images of horror in her mind with mounds of beautiful fabric and colors.
    You nailed the real purpose of fashion there.

  4. from Jacqueline

    Thank you, Alice! What a great memory.

  5. Very interesting, "Our Jacqueline."

    Such a font of knowledge. Thank you.

    Tom, T.O.