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16 May 2022

From the NS archive: Didi and the glass of fashion

30 April 1955: The English dislike flamboyance without chic. My friend believes otherwise.

By Naomi Shepherd

As with many sayings in the English language, it was Shakespeare who was first recorded using the term “glass of fashion” in Hamlet, before it was taken as the title of the photographer Cecil Beaton’s personal history of fashion published in 1954. In this piece from the following year, Naomi Shepherd uses it to help reflect upon her friend Didi’s eccentric fashion choices. Didi picks her clothing to help assimilate into whichever city she finds herself in, resulting in a wardrobe “as confusedly cosmopolitan as herself”. She displays on her body the influences of the places and people around her: a green corduroy suit “with a high hat to match” to make Didi feel more English, a varsity Duffer coat to meet with American students, or a pink evening gown plucked from Parisian flea markets “with puffed sleeves, roses on the hip and velvet streamers, a musty marvel, cheaper than cheese”.


The only time that Didi ever really embarrassed me was when she arrived to go to the theatre dressed from head to foot in poisonous green corduroy, with a high hat to match, looking like a witch without a broomstick. As she was tall, with long black hair, goggling eyes and a large nose, the effect was seizing, even in the Latin Quarter. “I bought it for three pounds when I was in London,” she explained, “I think it makes me look so English.“

She might as well have appeared draped in a Spanish shawl or bright with Eastern crescents of every phase, for her wardrobe was as confusedly cosmopolitan as herself. Didi was restrained in her dress by neither good looks nor money, and she dressed as she meant and felt. Her birthplace was Germany, but this was irrelevant, for Didi had spent her childhood running from one capital to the next as if in a game; her homes were snatched away like musical chairs; and now she was a student, tramping the draughty corridors of the Beaux-Arts, painting quaysides and tuberculous nudes. And dressing variously.

Didi had worked her way through the eastern and south European expatriates when I met her. She was sitting at a café table between a fresh-faced Scandinavian and his wife, and they were all discussing Strindberg. I could tell from what Didi said that she thought that he was Ibsen, but this did not seem to disturb the Scandinavians, both of whom were nudging her under the table. But Didi, whatever her muddle over Northern literature might be, had orthodox appetites – and in any case she had decided already to attach herself to the West, to learn all about it.

I explained to her, as an Englishman, that we disliked flamboyance without chic, and she made herself an excessively grim dress from a blanket, in which she rode about Paris on the back of my bicycle. She even followed me to the Bibliothèque Nationale where I studied; she sat reading ballad poetry, which I thought simplest for her, with a puzzled look on her face. She particularly liked Kipling. We acted as one another’s bankers, for she was far too generous and I careless with my allowance, but there was no closer link between us. Didi needed something stronger to connect her to England and its mysterious ways, and that, I imagine, was why she became restless and told her café acquaintances: We should have a complete friendship; but he is lazy and too shorter than me.

When the ex-GI students arrived in Paris to size it up and hamburgers burgeoned in the Boul’Miche, Didi went campus girl. In a striped woollen scarf reaching to her knees and ribbed socks, she looked as comfortable as a bird of paradise in a siren suit. She assimilated a pocketbook culture and began to paint the quaysides in sharper relief and colours reminiscent of Grandma Moses. Wearing a véritable duffer coat, she acquired a mathematician named Josh, who seemed to her the soul of transatlantic translucidity. With him she hoped to stand on more solid ground than with a cautious Englishman. Josh, however, was trying to become European. He had just read Gide, rather late in the day, and swore that he had stolen in the name of liberty from every library in Europe. Didi still hoped that he was an honest Josh, the type that shuts out doubt with drink, and succeeds. But Josh was not tough, never touched a drop, and sat with Didi in café corners complaining of the decline in conversation since Wilde.

Didi, who was nothing if not remorselessly up to date, soon regretted Josh, and found another Westerner through whom the meaning of stability might be revealed to her. He was a gloomy medical student from Detroit, who missed his mother but had been unable to make the grade at home. Perhaps it was because of his very dullness that Didi found him exciting; he seemed to promise a sound anchorage. He certainly allowed Didi to fish in his waters and never chased her away, for when he was bored he said he was busy. Didi took this to mean acceptance; she was used to cruder rebuttals. But as his departure drew near, Didi, who had always taken her pleasures as they came, turned lovelorn and got her influences mixed. She sent him letters in passionately incorrect English mistaken from lyrical anthologies. She represented him as a stream from which she longed to drink but which dried up at her approach. The stream replied uneasily that it was busy.

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At a clothing stall in the Flea Market, Didi found a pink evening dress with puffed sleeves, roses on the hip and velvet streamers, a musty marvel, cheaper than cheese. She took this romantic revival home and boiled it, an operation which demanded a hundred journeys between the tap on the landing, an explosive gas ring and a tin bucket. Finally, in an effort suggested by heaven knew which evening at the Comédie Francaise, Didi struggled into the pink dress and traipsed across Paris on a bitter cold night to dazzle her lover. In the Metro they laughed and shrugged; at St Germain the tourists brightened –  this was something like it; in the empty markets between the boulevard and his hotel, an old woman disturbed in scavenging threw a rotten tomato.

Didi came out of hospital in time to see me off, for we were still good friends. (I had suggested it was an English thing to be.) I was expecting the compliment of corduroy, but I caught no glint of green on the platform, and prepared myself to greet any new development, from a sombrero to a sarong. Suddenly I heard her voice behind me, and turned to see a shabby and inconspicuous Didi. Her expression was no longer inquiring; for the first time since I had known her, she looked lost. I know I look fantastical,” she said, “but I couldn’t refuse the extra things I had. They are so poor, and their blood is thinner than ours. It was only then that I noticed, loping triumphantly along the platform behind her, the Scandinavian couple, dressed in a familiar motley. The man, I noted, was wearing the Spanish shawl and the woman the duffer coat. They each took one of Didi’s arms and she smiled goodbye to me – a little bleakly, I thought. I am learning about the Sagas now, she said. Then, again for the first time since I had known her, she seemed to feel obliged to explain herself and added defiantly, “All knowledge is good, don’t you think, if it gives you pleasure?“

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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