“After breakfast I put on a long suede coat and the Jane Eberlein fur hat. The coat has deep inside pockets. Into them I put the last, folded clipping, a bundle of krone notes, Isaiah’s tape, and the letter to my father. Then I leave. The day has begun.” Peter Hoeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow
I read Smilla’s Sense of Snow greedily, and very quickly. It came with the highest recommendation – the original Scandinavian crime novel! Beautiful beyond compare! Julia Ormond in the film version! And when I finally sat down to read it, in an over air-conditioned hotel room in muggy Hong Kong, I had that overwhelming sense of eagerness and hurry that really good, exciting books give you. That cliché term (‘I couldn’t put it down!’) was very applicable here. I carried it around with me hoping for those stolen moments on the tram or waiting at a café where I could dive back into snow-blown Copenhagen and unexplained deaths and Smilla Jaspersen’s wonderful wardrobe.
This book was written in 1997, which pretty much sums up its sartorial appeal to me. The 90s are my golden age, the decade I try and recreate with Birkenstocks and long baggy slip dresses and oversized camel coats. Smilla is the quintessential 90s ice queen. She’s part mathematician and part poet, part independent woman and part unpredictable liability. You’re never sure of her as a reliable narrator, and just when you’re about to collapse from exhaustion from the way she talks about snow, she cracks a joke and all is right again. ‘Bertrand Russell wrote that pure mathematics is the field in which we don’t know what we’re talking about or to what extent what we say is true or false,’ Smilla says. ‘That’s the way I feel about cooking.’
Smilla’s attention to sartorial detail is thrilling. She relishes the act of getting dressed, and each outfit is lovingly described. She wears sealskin coats and leather leggings, fur-lined capes and big sweaters and flat shoes. She dresses up in a Le Smoking with a Burberry raincoat sitting on her shoulders. It’s easy to imagine her, walking through the Copenhagen streets – never driving, her outfits require too much care to be bundled into cars, she says – in oversized, long-line Celine coats, chunky The Row sweaters, slim fitting trousers and sensible snow boots. One of my favourite outfits that she wears is a red turtleneck, a tartan skirt and thigh-high boots with a Louis Vuitton handbag on a very late-night reconnaissance mission to the Cryolite Corporation. ‘I’ve learned that it’s always easier to explain things if you’re nicely dressed,’ Smilla says.
And that’s the best thing about her wardrobe, really. This is the kind of no-nonsense yet simultaneously sophisticated crime-solving get-up that we see replicated on TV shows like Castle or The Killing now. She wears functional clothes, but they’re functional without sacrificing style. Even when she stows away on a freight ship she styles her shapeless smock uniform with a belt and a silk scarf over her hair. She’s a classic garconne, the tomboy in dress only, who is instantly given away by that something feminine in the way they move. She’s Apiece Apart’s A/W 2013 collection, all tunics and bell-sleeved coats and hair tucked into hats. She’s burgundy and ivory and grey. She’s everything too big, but intentionally so.
At one point in the book Smilla says that fashion is her one luxury in life. She calls it vanity but I call it sanity. I call it Smilla’s sense of order amidst the chaos of crime and the recklessness of discrimination, which unsettles us all. For Smilla, control is about her ritual of ice cold showers and almond oil and getting dressed in the morning. That’s something I can relate to.
Images via Where I Was From