‘The day my laundry came back, I took out all my clothes and spread them around the room for Judy and me to look at. I was determined that for once, just once in my life, when I went to those readings, I would be wearing the ‘right’ thing. The right thing in this case had to be something general: something that wouldn’t type me. To my chagrin all my clothes stubbornly refused this neutrality, splitting themselves up resolutely into three categories: Tyrolean Peasant, Bar Girl and Dreaded Librarian. It looked hopeless.’ Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado
When we first meet Sally Jay Gorce in Elaine Dundy’s dry Martini of a coming-of-age story The Dud Avocado she’s wearing an evening dress with freshly dyed pink hair, ‘hell-bent on living’ in Paris. She’s fresh out of uni (college?!) and her rich, much-loved whimsical Uncle has given her the kind of allowance that lets you jet off to foreign countries and drink champagne in the afternoons, with only one caveat; that she return after her adventures and tell him all the wild stories.
The rest of the story follows her gaining and then quickly getting rid of a much-older married lover (as well as somewhat of a sexual awakening), falling for a fellow American, getting cast in a play and making various messes of things. The mille-feuille plot – but when has a coming-of-age story really been about the plot, hmm? – is nothing against its frank, charmingly honest tone, which is perfectly realised and, often to great hilarity, confidently executed. The laugh out loud moments are strewn throughout the book. Reading the novel is somewhat like listening to a string of stories from that ridiculous, mishap-prone friend of yours – we’ve all gone, haven’t we? – who always seems to be getting themselves into trouble.
The book was published in 1958 and was a direct contemporary to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and follows that other famously light-plotted coming-of-age story; Bonjour Tristesse. The similarities between all three, but primarily between Holly and Sally Jay are glaring. Both are American, both are actress-types in their own ways, both fall for the wrong men. But whereas Holly Golightly is difficult to please and sometimes seems like frankly a bit of a bore, Sally Jay is a scream with her pink hair and her glasses of Pernod and her wardrobe of anxieties.
She’s a Woody Allen heroine 20 years before Woody Allen made a movie. She’s Jennifer Lawrence: screwball funny with a face that could stop you in your tracks, but falls down all the time and has bruises on her knees.
Set in the 1950s, you can expect all of that delicious full-skirted stuff in Sally Jay’s closet. She’s also got the perfect cigarette pants and sweater combinations with leather loafers that we have come to expect from brainy ‘Dreaded Librarian’ characters. She wears no jewellery when all the women around her are dripping with diamonds and pale, champagne coloured furs, and evening dresses when everyone else is in two-pieces (it is the middle of the day, after all). She has a screaming match in her slip. She does what all of us do: she goes to designer sales and buys beautiful outfits that she nevers wears, letting them ‘just droop about in my wardrobe’. Even the secondary characters have great wardrobes. The men run around her wearing baize-green suits and grey suede shoes and lemon-yellow car coats.
As I was thinking about this post, I couldn’t get the recent Simone Rocha collection out of my head. Josie showed it to me thinking that it would be great for a literary style, and I think she might have had something more era-appropriate (Rocha’s inspiration was Anne Boleyn) in mind, but there’s something so Sally Jay about those pale pink cross-hatched frocks, the gold detailing, the little flower necklaces and belts.
She might swap out that tartan – just too British, darling – for something a bit more American (a nice polka dot, maybe? Or herringbone?) but can’t you just see her in that fur-trimmed snakeskin coat? In the navy blue shift dresses with the fluted sleeves? Throw in some high-waisted bathing suits and a neat little purse, big enough for lipsticks and compacts and that blasted passport and you pretty much have her wardrobe right there.
Because, really, there is something very British about Sally Jay. Maybe this comes from the relationship that Dundy was in at the time with British playwright Kenneth Tynan. Maybe it’s the oddball elements of her character, the slightly subversive nature of that pink hair. In fact, there is a lot about Sally Jay that reminds me of Linda from The Pursuit of Love.
Simone Rocha is fast becoming a very recognisably British designer, it only makes sense that these clothes work so well with this story. And think about this – The Dud Avocado was never out of print in Britain.
Images via Dazed Digital