“Then I’ll get out of my mistress clothes and make some coffee. I might even have another bath, she thought. The clothes were simply not wearable at home. Thin black stockings, no vest – far too unromantic – a tight black skirt that showed her knees, fortunately elegant… and a tight but thin scarlet polo-neck sweater. Her feet hurt. He liked heels but she didn’t have the pointed Gothic toes required. She kicked off the shoes. It’s amazing what we put up with, she thought, all the clothes we’re expected to wear.” Elizabeth Howard, Love All
Poor Persephone Plover. We meet her in the throes of getting brutally dumped by the older man she wanted to love her (and leave his wife for). Instead, she ends up hurtling down the highway to Melton with her almost-elderly Aunt. The pair proceed to shake things up in the sleepy village in the West Country, redesigning an estate’s overgrown garden, organising a local arts festival and, in Persephone’s case, shaking off a sheltered childhood and replacing it with something that looks and feels like maturity. Naturally, Persephone Plover, half Greek and very beautiful, is a heroine in her countrymen’s sense of the word. And she also has a fantastic wardrobe.
Persephone – or Percy as she’s fondly known – is a frustrating sort of heroine, because she is quite melodramatic, and prone to underplaying her loveliness, which is sometimes hard to read (but perhaps, true to life?). Throughout the course of the book all of the major male leads fall in love with her dark, intelligent, mysterious beauty. And she loves them all back, in various guises, which leads to a complicated, very messy sort of love oblong. It’s not her fault though, innocent in love – despite the older man – Percy takes a while to understand that sympathy is not the same as affection and affection is not the same as adoration and adoration is not the same as love.
But it’s the 60s, and aren’t her clothes great! Elizabeth Howard is one of those delicate, light-handed writers with a glorious feel for clothes. You can imagine Howard in her conservatory, reading British Vogue with her tea and toast. Percy’s big reveal – at a dinner party at local benefactor Jack Curtis’ estate – happens in a green Mary Quant shift, worn over a white collared shirt. In fact, Percy wears a lot of green. Later, when she meets Thomas Musgrove for the first time, she’s in a green dress with bare legs and tan sandals. At her farewell party, Percy arrives late in a pleated mini skirt of pale green chiffon “that flared a little as she moved”, her dark hair tied back with a piece of green ribbon.
She wears the kind of simple, effortless things that we would all like to wear. Vaguely feminine, shamelessly utilitarian, and with just a hint of luxury. Think, A.P.C, Carven and La Garconne. In the garden with her aunt she’s in jeans and an old cotton shirt, when planning her arts festival she wears tailored slacks and a pretty blouse (her hair smelling of ‘lemon and clean-ness’, Francis, suitor number three notes). Later, at a ramshackle dinner party in her kitchen, she wears white jeans and a blue shirt, drinks red wine and looks the image of a carefree summer.
It’s an easy style, rendered flawlessly. Percy leaps off the page, all tanned shoulders and green, green, green. And it’s an easy book, like all Elizabeth Howard’s are. She’s most famous for writing the Light Years – a sort of Downton Abbey-esque series – which follows the Cazalet family from the 1920s through to the 1960s. It’s a period that I seem to be drawn to in literature (I Capture the Castle, The Dud Avocado and Bonjour Tristesse all fall into it!), and I guess it’s no surprise, really, when you think about the clothes. Give me a shift dress and a flat shoe or gamine cigarette pants and a smock any day.
Images via La Garconne