We love to go a wandering
This post was inspired by Monica Jones, an academic rather than a librarian, and the long term lover of Philip Larkin, poet and university librarian, and not exactly glamorous. Bear with me. I’ve had to do a lot of convoluted thinking.
I don’t really know very much about Monica. It’s hard to get to the actual woman, surrounded as she is in a haze of misogyny, damned with faint praise, or covertly ridiculed. Kingsley Amis is said to have based Margaret Peel, a character from Lucky Jim on her, with Larkin’s agreement (I presume nobody asked her for hers). Amis Junior has also been very unpleasant about her, calling attention to her less than perfect teeth, which I find surprising, since his own teeth were the subject of controversy not so long ago. She died in 2001, aged 78, still unmarried. Larkin messed her about for decades, but she must have been very fond of him, because in spite of being a very attractive woman, she did not form a lasting attachment to anybody else. Clearly, she had different standards of loyalty.
I was going to title this piece The Slut Librarian. Then I thought again – why use a derogatory term for such a great look? I feel the need to watch my language, to be aware in a way I would have been in my younger, more straightforwardly feminist years. It’s not necessarily OK to “reclaim” a word with such negative connotations, maybe. I set off wanting to write light-hearted pieces about fashion, and before I can blink, I am angry. This time, it’s because, when I investigate a little further into the lives of the real women whose image I am thinking of, all kinds of ugly beasts creep out of the woodwork.
But it’s a look I have always enjoyed, and tried to make my own. Maybe it dates back to my first job, as an accounts clerk in a well-known high street bank in Leicester in the late 60s. I was, in many ways, an innocent, but very interested in clothes and in image. It was a training bank and there was an influx of young women, all aged between 16 and 18, all sporting various looks. I loved the Cathy McGowan style of a tall willowy girl, and the cropped-haired, peroxide mod look of another. One girl from Asian heritage wore a shalwaar kemise, but most of us went for a conservative A-line skirt with a nice Courtelle or Orlon sweater in a pastel shade. However, the look I was most impressed by was that worn by some of the older (i.e. 30 plus) women, most of whom were cashiers. Swept up hair, a well-fitted pencil skirt to the knee and a silk blouse, both sexy and demure. Black suede court shoes. Some of them also wore horn-rimmed specs. I thought they looked fabulous.
Dressing for work is relatively new. The clothes you wore to work in the fields, depending on what part of the world you lived in, were just clothes – only very special occasions demanded anything more. During the industrialization process, women just wore their clothes to the factory, although the notion of the Sunday Best may have originated here. In the history of women's entry into the workforce, those joining the ranks of school teachers, nurses and librarians were encouraged to distance themselves from other kinds of female labour, which had become associated with prostitution. It was at this time that a kind of respectable uniform became the norm.
When it comes to the library, it seems that Dewey was a strong advocate for the use of women as librarians. He was not a feminist: far from it. He simply believed that the system he was promoting, which required the tasks of receiving, cataloguing, shelving, finding, and checking out books was more suited to women than men. These kinds of monotonous tasks were felt to be beyond the boredom threshold of the male. Women, however, were ideally suited to the mindless task of working in a modern, Dewey-ized library.
No hint of disrepute could be endured, and their respectability was secured by thoroughly de-sexing themselves through clothing, behavior, and hairstyle.
From a blog post in Savage Minds
So how is it now, on a Monday morning, as I rifle through my overstuffed wardrobe looking blearily for something to wear to work? My vintage clothes don’t seem right – too much story going on there, and at my age, the concept of vintage clothes might just translate into something she used to wear. Dress codes for work are a lot less formal, but I don’t want to dress down too much. In fact I have more or less reverted to the GL but with less of the G: a skirt, a simple top, a cardigan. Boots more likely than courts. The glasses are a cross between horn-rimmed and Dame Edna. I occasionally risk the pearls.
The illustration for this post is a cyanotype print by Cath Walshaw