Wednesday 9 May 2012

Mark Twain, Fashion Writer!

The Pistol-packing Widow Ormsby
by Caroline Lawrence

I'm currently having fun writing the third book about my 12-year-old Nevada-based detective, P.K. "Pinky" Pinkerton. In The Case of the Pistol-packing Widow, Pinky spies on the Carson City wedding of Dr. Anton Tjader (survivor of the Paiute Indian War of 1860 and grandfather-to-be of the jazzy 1960s vibraphone player) and Lucy Curry (one of the daughters of Carson City's "founder", Old Abe Curry). 

In return for tips on How to tell if a Woman is True to her Man, P.K. agrees to tell his Irish landlady what the people at the Tjader-Curry wedding were wearing.

I said, ‘Mr. Sam Clemens and his friend Clement T. Rice were both there. They wore boiled shirts, dark trowsers and frock coats. Mr. Clemens had a gray cravat and Mr. Rice had a blue one.’

‘Not the men, for the love of God!’ cried Mrs. Murphy. ‘The women! What were the women wearing at all?’

Salmon Pink? Or Pinky Orange?
I said, ‘Well, the bride was dressed in puffy white with a passel of orange blossoms and lace. Mrs. Margaret Ormsby was wearing a puffy dress of pinky orange with some lace at the bottom and Mrs. Violetta De Baskerville was wearing a puffy dress of pale purple with her shoulders showing.’

‘Really, P.K.,’ sighed Mrs. Murphy. ‘I declare. You cannot call dresses “puffy” and leave it there.’

P.K. should take a leaf from Mark Twain's book. Twain (AKA Sam Clemens) brilliantly spoofed some pompous reports of Ladies' Fashion in Society magazines. 

Here is one of those reports, written in January 1863 by a Mrs. F.H. Day for the San Francisco magazine Hesperian:

The foulards of plain colors seem this season to be preferred; cream color, Solferino, strawberry, violet, etc. The Pekins are of maroon and black… For gauze de Chambery, flounces and bands put on alternately are used, the bands having ruches, the body square with cannezous. White muslins are made with very wide insertions of colored ribbon… The camails, or round cloaks, are ornamented with gimps. One of white cachemire was with bands of guipure, and macarons of black gimp, terminating with chenille fringe; other are with bugles and chenille. But the burnous and the saute-en-barque are almost the only outdoor toilette worn at this moment. 

Twain's spoof article, written just a few weeks later, clearly shows the influence of the above paragraph, but he has inserted some hilarious new details. (I challenge you to read this aloud without laughing.)

Mrs. B. was arrayed in a superb speckled foulard, with the stripes running fore and aft, and with collets and camails to match; also, a rotonde of Chantilly lace, embroidered with blue and yellow dogs, and birds and things, done in cruel, and edged with a Solferino fringe four inches deep—lovely. Mrs. B. is tall, and graceful and beautiful, and the general effect of her costume was to render her appearance extremely lively.

Young Sam Clemens
Miss J. W. wore a charming robe polonais of scarlet ruche a la vieille, with yellow fluted flounces of rich bombazine, fourteen inches wide; low neck and short sleeves; also a Figaro veste of bleached domestic—selvedge edge turned down with a back-stitch, and trimmed with festoons of blue chicoree taffetas—gay?—I reckon not. Her head-dress was the sweetest thing you ever saw: a bunch of stately ostrich plumes—red and white—springing like fountains above each ear, with a crown between, consisting of a single fleur de soleil, fresh from the garden—Ah, me! Miss W. looked enchantingly pretty; however, there was nothing unusual about that—I have seen her look so, even in a milder costume.

Mrs. J. B. W. wore a heavy rat-colored brocade silk, studded with large silver stars, and trimmed with organdy; balloon sleeves of nankeen pique, gathered at the wrist, cut bias and hollowed out some at the elbow; also, a bournous of black Honiton lace, scolloped, and embroidered in violent colors with a battle piece representing the taking of Holland by the Dutch; low neck and high-heeled shoes; gloves; palm leaf fan; hoops; her head-dress consisted of a simple maroon colored Sontag, with festoons of blue illusion depending from it; upon her bosom reposed a gorgeous bouquet of real sage brush, imported from Washoe. Mrs. W. looked regally handsome. If every article of dress worn by her on this occasion had been multiplied seven times, I do not believe it would have improved her appearance any.

Miss C. wore an elegant Cheveux de la Reine (with ruffles and furbelows trimmed with bands of guipre round the bottom), and a mohair Garibaldi shirt; her unique head-dress was crowned with a graceful pomme de terre (Limerick French), and she had her hair done up in papers—greenbacks. The effect was very rich, partly owing to the market value of the material, and partly to the general loveliness of the lady herself, etc...

©Marjorie Russell Clothing & Textile Center, Carson City
Despite the hilarity of these "burlesque" descriptions, about half the bizarre phrases employed by Twain are authentic period expressions. Here is a short glossary: 

à disposition or en disposition - when a lace effect is actually woven into the weft of the fabric, not merely stitched on. An example of this is found on the hem, sleeves and sash of Margaret Ormsby's famous ball gown. (above)

Burnous = cape with a bobble-tipped hood, inspired by a garment of the same name from North Africa, usually worn by ladies as an evening cloak.

Capote = another hooded cloak, particularly worn by the women of Portugal. In Innocents Abroad, Twain writes, Here and there in the doorways we saw women with fashionable Portuguese hoods on. This hood is of thick blue cloth, attached to a cloak of the same stuff and is a marvel of ugliness... There is no particle of trimming about this monstrous capote, as they call it -- it is just a plain, ugly dead-blue mass of sail, and a woman can't go within eight points of the wind with one of them on. 

champagne = sometimes served in baskets in the 1860s, it could also be a colour. 

chenille = a tufted velvety cord or yarn, used for trimming furniture and making carpets and clothing.

foulard = a thin, soft material of silk or silk and cotton, often having a printed pattern.

Garibaldi = voluminous blouse of the colour red worn by supporters of Garibaldi, very popular in 1862.

gimp = twisted silk, worsted, or cotton with a cord or wire running through it, used chiefly as trimming.

guirpure = a heavy lace consisting of embroidered motifs held together by large connecting stitches.

Magenta = one of the first synthetic dyes, this brilliant purple red was derived from coal tar and named after the battle of Magenta in 1859.

pagoda cuffs = flaring sleeves that stop mid-forearm to reveal sleeves underneath and thus presumably a tiered effect.

saute-en-barque = (lit. French for jump into the boat) A flared three-quarter length coat without sleeves worn with a matching skirt. 

Solferino = Another colour named after a battle! This purplish-red color that came into favor in 1859, the year of the French victory over the Austrians at the Italian village of Solferino. Mark Twain loves this word and even uses it to describe facial hair, viz.: The drab-complexioned youth with the Solferino mustache…  

I was in Nevada last week and took the opportunity to visit the Marjorie Russell Clothing & Textile Center to look at a famous ball-gown from the 1860s, one worn by another famous Carson City resident. Mrs. Margaret Ormsby was widowed by the same Pyramid Lake War that Dr. Tjader survived and when she spotted the son of the Paiute Chief the following year, (in Carson City to have his photograph taken), it was rumoured that she stalked him with a loaded revolver! Curator Jan Loverin kindly showed me the ball gown and explained how it had been altered over the years. She also showed me a photo of Mrs. Ormsby wearing it sometime in the early 1860s. (see drawing at top of blog)

Here is how Mark Twain might have described "the puffy dress of pinky orange with some lace at the bottom" worn by the widow Ormsby. 

A two-piece confection made of salmon silk taffeta, featuring sleeves, sash and hem festooned with champagne Brussels Duchesse bobbin lace à disposition and edged with cream piping. A generous hooped skirt was magnified by lively crinoline undergarments. The fitted bodice, decorated with a violently pointed fore and demurely laced aft, is charmingly embellished by a column of self-covered coral pink buttons and topped by a jaunty stand-up collar. Fitted sleeves are befringed by gently ironical epaulets of oyster chenille at the shoulders before concluding in pagoda cuffs garnished with the aforementioned champagne bobbin lace. Had Mrs. Ormsby not been packing a pistol, she would have looked the sweetest angel this side of heaven. 

P.K. Pinkerton Mystery #2, The Case of the Good-looking Corpse (AKA P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man in the USA) is out in the UK on 7 June 2012. The Case of the Pistol-packing Widows (AKA P.K. Pinkerton and the Pistol-packing Widows in the USA) is out in 2013. You can see more about Caroline and her books at


Linda B-A said...

What a treat! You are right about not being able to read Mark Twain's pastiche without laughing out loud. Stripes running fore and aft and rat-coloured brocade silk caught my fancy, but I was particularly taken by the embroidered battle piece (every garment should have one!) representing the taking of Holland by the Dutch. Thanks, Caroline.

michelle lovric said...

Beautiful! Any excuse for recourse to Twain, of course, but this is a wonderfully surprising angle. As a very uxurious man, I assume that he got some help from his wife in these matters?

Katherine Langrish said...

Yes, I love the rat-coloured silk and the battle-piece, too! Wonderful. I look forward to the pistol-packing widow!

Juliette said...

Well now I want to read the third one, and the second isn't even out yet! Sigh.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Sam was not married at the time he wrote this but you can see he stole it wholesale from Mrs. Day! Such a clever fellow. He is a vein I can mine for a long, long time. :-)

adele said...

This post is heavenly bliss. Thanks Caroline and belated thanks to Mark Twain too. WOnderful stuff.

Sue Purkiss said...

Must obviously read some Mark Twain! I read Tom Sawyer years ago, but nothing else... recommendations on where to start, Caroline? I love detailed contemporary descriptions of clothes. Like in Gone With the Wind, with Scarlett in apple green tarleton, whatever that was.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

This is so delightful! I think I enjoyed your made up description more than Twains: "Violently pointed fore...ironical epaulelts (!)" Ha! How can an epaulet be ironical? It's clear you're having a great time with this and it just makes me look forward to reading the new ones in the series even more!

Penny Dolan said...

Think I shall try and dress "violently" from now on. Great post. Your research adventures always sound so enjoyably interesting!

Emily Holmes said...

I really admire detective-themed books. Mark Twain is a star. I like following his works.