In life and in fiction, what outfit we wear to a social affair can make us feel empowered – or ashamed. Rosalind Jana explores the worst – and best – sartorial mishaps.
parties are often ripe territory for failure. Amid the dancing and therefore the refore the talking and the new encounters, there can lie within you an excellent , dark pool of apprehension about all the possible ways during which the evening could fail . you’ll reach an incorrect time and not know what to mention or where to put yourself. you’ll drink an excessive amount of . you’ll say insufficient . Perhaps you’re the type of one that falls silent and retreats inwards at such events, watching everyone else laugh and glide around with ease you desperately envy. you’ll realize at some point, or try to not realize, that you simply are at rock bottom of the social hierarchy , your presence yielding more pity than pleasure. you would possibly even have made everything worse by turning up wearing the incorrect quite dress, all hope for an evening of fairytale glamour dashed the minute you entered the space and noted the dissonance between your outfit and everybody else’s.
All of those agonising sensations and half-revelations are ones experienced in quick succession by Aroon St Charles, the deceptively naïve narrator of Molly Keane’s novel Good Behaviour. First published in 1981, and re-released last month by ny Review Books, Keane’s Booker-shortlisted comedy of manners is bleak, brilliant, and sometimes vicious in its humour. Set within the crumbling world of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy within the early 20th Century, it features a cast of characters who are obsessed by – and regularly fail – the stress of taste, restraint, and good behaviour.
Aroon, who is much-maligned by her mother and desperate for affection from her father, relays the story of her upper-crust upbringing with a clumsy candour. As a young, lonely woman, she is delighted by an invitation to a ball held by another local family. Her size & height are the topics of frequent barbs from her mother & thus dress is already fraught territory. However, she features a gown tailored specially for the event – a confection of pink chiffon and gold lace that creates her feel “unbelievable”, the narrator watching her reflection within the mirror with a rare “shudder of pleasure”. However, this gown’s magic is short-lived. Her mother ignores it. Her father is painfully polite about it. And when she turns up at the party much too early, with everyone else still wearing their daytime clothes (the men in tweed jackets and therefore the women in pearls and cardigans), it marks the start of an evening defined by the reader’s excruciating awareness of Aroon’s failure to suit in.
Part of Keane’s cleverness in Good Behaviour comes within the disjunct between what Aroon observes and what the reader understands. afterward when everyone else has finally changed, she deems another party-goer’s white dress “quite horrid” for being “straight as a pinafore”. as long as this scene takes place within the 1920s, we onlookers may recognise the straightforward stylishness of this dress compared to Aroon’s froth of cloth , but she doesn’t . Her sense of discomfort, however, is clearly articulated: “I stood about, smiling, compressed, submerged in politeness; aching in my isolation; longing to be alone; to be away; to be tomorrow’s person.”
The night features a sequence of events that ends dramatically in vomiting and a family death, but allow us to focus for a flash longer on Aroon’s dress. It belongs to a huge , shadowy wardrobe of fictional garments that have betrayed their owners. for each literary scene highlighting the transformative power of fashion – think Cinderella’s dress and glass slippers, or Shakespeare’s many gender swaps and disguises – there’s another that focuses on the subtler, more self-conscious trials of an outfit that creates the wearer feel uncomfortable and ashamed. Most of those scenes happen publicly settings, and an excellent number of them at parties.
Lilliet and Mathilda are driven by very various things , but they share a taste for performance and an understanding of clothing as costume. Perhaps this is often why they approach the question of wearing the “wrong” thing differently. they’re self-made women who are constantly fashioning themselves into who they need to be, meaning that they do not see dress as something which will betray anything especially intimate or wounding. Instead it becomes a source of limitless potential, offering them a tool to command attention – and an armour to deflect others.