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Encounter With a Text/Context

Kat Meads


Bodega/Bodega Bay visitor encounters no shortage of attractions. Rolling hills, picturesque harbors, sand, sea, starfish, barking seals and, for those of us who prefer our coastal towns misty, creep-in/creep-out fog. The schoolhouse-now-private-residence Hitchcock made famous can be peered at close range; the nearby church of St. Teresa of Avila, photographed by Ansel Adams a decade before its cameo in The Birds, can be entered at will and without faith. Available to both gawkers and consumers: hat shops, bait shops, surf shops, kite shops, platefuls of today’s fresh catch served in restaurants wide and narrow, boats to rent, high/low hiking trails that thread through (pick your pleasure) spare or jagged terrain, and, this day, an estate sale in progress along Shoreline Highway—my first estate sale opportunity since the pandemic made communal browsing less joy than risk.

What is it about certain old books? The heft? The wide, wide margins? The no-stint-on-quality paper? The 1951 ninth reprint of Grace Margaret Morton’s The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance offered the above seductions, plus the allure of situational ironies: we, its potential buyers, were an unfashionable, near slovenly bunch, garbed to the person in an accessory Morton could not have foreseen: the face mask.

Author Morton, clothing authority and academic, taught at the University of Nebraska for more than twenty years, a home economics professor and chair of the textiles and clothing division. Her ascending, triple-threat career was cut short by sudden death in 1943, a scant few months after the original Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance was published. Prior to its publication, throughout the 1920s and thereafter, Morton’s fashion advice and historical reports appeared in the Journal of Home Economics (e.g., “Psychology of Dress”) and Extension newsletters (e.g., “Appreciating Grandmother’s Handiwork”). She also lectured outside the classroom, in one instance speaking on the “Art in Dress” to the Omaha branch of the American Association of University Women in January 1924. Those articles and lectures, on campus and off, presumably amounted to short takes on material she expanded to fill the 400 pages of The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance. The result is not a book that delays its intentions. On page one of her preface, Morton offers up the “eager hope” that the contents that follow will help raise the bar in women’s fashion and establish a “higher standard of taste among people everywhere.” She names among her target audience “students of home economics” who’d go on to teach the subject, “advisers in retail stores,” and the more comprehensive category of “all those concerned with selecting, making, selling and wearing apparel.” From the start, certain crusade fundamentals crosshatch the fabric of Morton’s prose: the staunch belief that “taste” can be acquired; that women—despite restrictive “economies” and “irregularities” of face and figure—can improve their public presentation; that to achieve professional success and personal fulfillment, women must fit the mould (“The world still wants its women to conform to certain standards of beauty”). That said, no reward will come without considerable and continuous effort. And what of it? Morton is nothing if not a proselytizing disciple of the try hard/try harder school. To fail in effort not only dishonors the self, it inflicts injury on Beauty in its most abstract configuration, a dual disrespect Morton refuses to countenance.

Its inspirational ambitions notwithstanding, The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance was issued as a textbook and fulfills the requirements of that niche. There are illustrations; there are summaries; there are glossaries; there are charts; there are Further Reading suggestions. Like every textbook worth its salt, there are subheads (“Expressiveness of Lines, Spaces and Shapes,” “Chroma or Intensity,” “The Silhouette,” “Personal Attractiveness and Marriageability,” “Sway-backs and Prominent Posteriors”). In addition to covering subjective topics the likes of “Understanding and Dressing to Temperament,” Morton provides in depth, technical discussions of color and texture. To bolster her arguments, she cites painters (Botticelli, Ingres, Whistler, Titian, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Arthur Dow), of-the-era writers (Clare Booth, Fannie Hurst, Dorothy Thompson), costumed movie stars (Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton), fashion designers (Coco Chanel, “Madame Valentina,” the “young,” “intelligent,” “resourceful” Edith Head), scientists, social psychologists, and in one instance First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, praised for her “unflagging energy.” The author provides daily and weekly plans for “cultivating self-made good looks” and a checklist of “equipment” necessary to pull off the job. “Wardrobe building” suggestions are supplied for a range of events/activities (“spectator sports,” travel, “homemaking and chauffeuring,” bridge parties, “formal teas”) attended/undertaken by students, businesswomen, homemakers, empty nesters, the young, the “mature,” the “thin” with “bony necks” and “prominent shoulder blades,” the “near-stout” and the fully “stout,” who must under no circumstance give in to the desire to wear “spike-heeled shoes,” a blunder that will make their “feet look too slender to support a heavy body.”

Published during wartime, The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance acknowledges the “great economic crisis,” “era of emergency,” and ongoing “limitations and curtailments of materials to which civilians are accustomed.” Morton shares the decision to omit colored illustrations “to keep the price of the book at a reasonable level,” adding: “The author of a volume of this kind in which there are no color plates has a real problem in attempting to tell the things she wants to tell about color.” A single show of petulance. Morton strongly believes that “personal appearance still plays a part in morale” and that “the enduring principles set down in this volume will carry over into the new world ahead.” For those resistant to the morale argument, Morton has another up her sleeve:

In these troubled times there are many who sorely need a sense of security and feeling of significance. May it not well be that the achieving of an idealized version of one’s self through the best possible personal appearance may help to free the spirit and bring a sense of poise and adequacy without which no human can be really happy?

A fan of the royal we, on occasion Morton’s language sweeps toward the flowery. In a discussion of rhythm as “the mainspring of fine costume”:

In its simplest form we can see rhythm in the ripple of waves…in the sequence of attitudes of a great dancer…. In spiral arrangements, as of a seashell…. We feel it in the horizontal movement of trimming on wide-skirted evening gowns; or in the undulating lines of a picture hat, as it dips in relation to the head and shoulders.

In a discussion of line:

We enjoy horizontal line movement because it suggests the repose and quiet calm of the horizon, or sleeping animals, or flat, quiet, resting waters. We respond to vertical shapes…because they revive in us the feeling of stability and grandeur, of tall cliffs…. We thrill to upward swirls and flowing drapery because it suggests vigorous plant growth or the fascination of rising flame.

There are also thrills to be gleaned from striking combinations of color: “Too much harmony, too much sweetness and ease pall upon us. We look for the unexpected, and in the mastery of some dissonant element we get a thrill of conquest.”

Such flights of rapture, however, are rare. By and large Morton delivers crisp, direct description (“low, flabby busts”) in straightforward diction (“Clothes should be chosen for the places we go…not for the places we would like to go”). With similar bluntness, she tells us: “Many women’s hat problems are due to oversized heads…often caused by having too much hair, which should be thinned.” The “average woman’s taste in the choice of allover patterns is far from good”; “few women have the strength of personality…to wear large scale, bold prints”; and “although American women are conceded to have the best figures in the world” (who concedes this is unclear) “in many ways we fall far short of the standard.” There is no ambiguity as to the “contemporary ideal” figure, defined by Morton as:

Oval head and face; arms slender, sleek-muscled…shoulders and hips the same width, waistline well curved, thighs the same width as the hips…graceful, proportioned calves, slender ankles, and feet which, when standing, come together.

The “most enviable height”? Five feet five. Regarding the “flat-chested boyish figure of the 1920’s with its debutante slouch and air of disillusionment”? Good riddance.

Confident in her mission, Morton’s tone, which aims at encouragement, now and again descends to scold and reprimand: “All too few people today seem to have the particular brand of intelligence or skill to achieve results which may be said to embody style.” “Those who claim that clothes bore them have surely failed to understand feminine psychology.” And, for Morton, this obviously exasperating state of affairs: “Some young women of real ability fail to realize the value of a good appearance. Sometimes they are absorbed in intellectual pursuits and regard themselves superior to so-called feminine frivolities.”

When criticizing a specific public someone, Morton characterizes rather than names: “a certain Swedish skater of stocky chest and arms”; “the short figure and bowed legs of one of Hollywood’s beloved stars” (identified elsewhere as Bette Davis by less discreet Edith Head). Morton has no qualms about using “peasant” as pejorative and problem category (“Square, wide, peasant-like feet require shoes with broad, square toes and low heels”) and does little to disguise her objection to “aggressive” females. For a color exercise, she tosses students a double-whammy challenge: come up with a “school dress” for a girl handicapped not only with the dread “aggressive nature” but also bodily “plump.” Although accomplished women are lauded throughout the text, the author sticks to the premise that professional advancement can be achieved—and sustained—by the retiring and the demure. “Many a handsome face has been enhanced or marred by the mental attitude or the general philosophy behind it,” she writes in the section that stresses the importance of maintaining a “pleasant facial expression.” Approvingly she repeats Vogue editor Caroline Duer’s distinction between wrinkles “of the skin” and “of the soul,” the latter, in Morton’s elaboration on theme, created by “holding grudges” or “being envious and uncharitable.” For those unsure of how far they’ve fallen on the wrinkle index: “A study of one’s face in good light without make-up may reveal selfish, pouting wrinkles or lines of anxiety or melancholy or fear.” If “deep lines have developed between your eyes, try the use of ‘frowners’ at night. They can be had at any drugstore and have many times broken up this habit entirely.” How to dispatch the afflictions of anxiety, melancholy, and fear Morton leaves to other texts and experts.

Morton’s frowners advice appears as number eight in a list of nine “exercises” at the conclusion of chapter two. A great many of her exercises, chapters one through thirteen, make me extremely glad not to have occupied a seat in Morton’s classroom or been at the mercy of her grading pen. A substantial number resemble Buzzfeed-style self-evaluation quizzes:

—Do you dress to win the approval of the opposite sex? Your own sex? As compensation? As self-expression? As escape?
—Analyze yourself to see if you can determine wherein you do or do not possess qualities of style.
—List your assets and liabilities to consider in working out your own personal problems (of proportion).
—Record…your voice…. Is it harsh, strident, monotonous, or uncultivated?

Other assignments demand more time and talent:

—Plan and execute in water color or tempura paint a series of experiments demonstrating…
—Make a collection of costume accessories such as shoes, bags, gloves, belts, jewelry, etc., in which structure has significance and decoration is restrained, emphasizes structure and is well suited to its function.
—Explain the difference between stylish, stylized, taste, smartness, chic, being “in style,” “having style,” elegance, being elegantly dressed, dressy, cute…the spectacular, the banal, the dramatic. Illustrate those terms with examples.

The final example above bookends a chapter titled “The Meaning of Style,” a probe into what style isn’t (“making up one’s face in public places”) and is (“the choice of some tellingly effective ornament, not at once noticed, but, when noticed, not easily forgotten”). For the confused—or tremulous—another daunting “rule” to ponder: “Style is personality.” Above all, the acquisition and maintenance of style requires “self-discipline,” starting with the “self-discipline…to see that one is well scrubbed and brushed and polished and exercised, well-girdled, with carriage erect, no matter how persistent one’s inclination to relaxation or indolence.” To be very, very clear: there shalt be no slacking off—not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

Bombarded by dos and don’ts, I find I need a break and take it within view of where the very stylish Tippi Hedren/Melanie Daniels boated across Bodega Bay with her cage of lovebirds, attired in a pale green sheath dress with matching jacket, fur coat, silk scarf, suede gloves, heels, purse, and necklace of gold, courtesy of Morton favorite Edith Head. Reportedly, Head made six copies of the outfit to accommodate various stages of bird attack. The 1952 short story “The Birds,” penned by Daphne du Maurier—no fashion slouch herself in those Cornwall sweater and slacks sets—features protagonist Nat Hocken, who had suffered a “wartime disability,” works part-time on a nearby farm and can’t comprehend why the persecuting birds have come to acquire the “instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.” Hitchcock had reprinted Du Maurier’s story in one of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies, but what reanimated his interest in the subject matter was a 1961 article published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel headlined: “Seabird Invasion Hits Coastal Homes,” a report referenced in the film. For his 1963 production, Hitchcock kept Du Maurier’s title, the coastal setting, the bird attacks, the pecked-to-death corpses, the escalating frenzy of attacker and prey, inept bureaucratic responses, house confinement, and of course the spookiness. Otherwise he glammed it up with socialite character Daniels, love interest/lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), open roads, and open waters. Du Maurier’s tale starts claustrophobic and mostly stays that way, concluding with the working class Hocken family huddled in a dark, boarded-up house that may—or may not—withstand the next avian attack. In Hitchcock’s film, the four primary characters make their getaway in Melanie’s snazzy Aston-Martin.

No used book comes into one’s hands without a shadow presence. The previous owner had paid three dollars and fifty cents more in 1951 (or thereafter) for the book I bought in 2021 for a dollar. During the course of her ownership, Helen Fiondella had married—if the clue of the added name Swindt in different ink can be trusted. Did Helen Fiondella Swindt agree with Grace Margaret Morton’s assertion that “very few normal (my italics) young women do not look forward to marriage”? One wonders. With the lightest of pencil strokes, Helen checks the “Good Skin” section and underlines an entire paragraph on “good carriage” with instructions to “point…feet straight ahead…not at an angle” and thus prevent “waddling.” She also underlines a lengthy paragraph on how to achieve a “sitting posture” that is “hygienic” and “also presents a good appearance and indicates good breeding” in which feet also figure, one foot to be placed “a little in advance of the other.” Helen joins me again on page 48 for Morton’s “Design Essentials” discussion and checks the sentence: “All of art is concerned with the organization of certain fundamental elements, called by moderns the ‘plastic elements’…line, form and space, dark-light, color, and texture.” Helen also endorses Morton’s opinion that “no other element is so important to good costume” as line. Helen and her pencil return to number Morton’s “stages in developing color appreciation” from “development of color sense” through “discernment and application of color principles” on page 131. On pages 137-38, Morton discusses the science of color, light, spectrums and artificial illumination, but Helen holds back her pencil until Morton offers the caveat: “Although these facts give us no direct help in the problem of combining colors, they do put value and meaning into whatever work we do with color.” And then Helen and her pencil desert me for 150 pages, returning briefly, briefly to star Morton’s conclusions on what constitutes “a masculine nature.” Thereafter Helen 1) finds nothing more of note in Morton’s textbook, 2) succumbs to the slouch of disillusionment, 3) stops reading by chance or by choice.

For whatever reason Helen exited Morton’s text, I miss reading over her shoulder. I miss my mother too, who, in 1943, the year of Morton’s first edition, was a four-year wife and first-time mother of an infant son, “Stretching the Clothing Dollar” by sewing not only the start-with-these-basics scarves and blouses Morton recommends, but dresses, coats, suits, and hats, an accomplished seamstress since her teens. Were she still alive, I could call and get her take on Morton’s take of “reefer-type” coats and “fluttering chiffon.” I could remind her of the college summer an admiring French woman waylaid me on a Paris street to ask whether I’d sell, for a handsome price, my “one-of-a-kind” denim skirt fashioned from a bell-bottomed pair of sailor jeans. I could remind her a chic Parisian had recognized the craft and ingenuity of her design and execution—ingenuity that, war-tested and wary, my mother continued to keep in play, even when times turned less hard than once they’d been.

Kat Meads_B&W

Kat Meads