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  • "Velvet Is Very Important":Madge Garland and the Work of Fashion
  • Lisa Cohen (bio)

In a schoolroom in London at the turn of the twentieth century, a young girl lies strapped to a sloping wooden board—a treatment the doctor has ordered for her worsening curvature of the spine. During writing lessons she is allowed to sit upright with the rest of the class, but then her arms are secured so tightly to the back of her chair that she cannot move her wrist normally. She also has trouble with her throat, and "graver trouble" with her feet and ankles, for which she wears ugly lace-up orthopedic boots. In the summer, "when the world [is] at its prettiest," she suffers so acutely from allergies—to food, to flowers, to the air—that her temperature soars and she is forced to lie all day in a darkened room.1 She is fed strawberries in cream in an attempt to restore her to health, but this regimen only exacerbates her ailments.

She is a thin girl with freckles and long, straight blonde hair. She is slightly bucktoothed, and her eyes are a bit too close together. Her clothes do not flatter her; her parents constantly remind her of her "deficiency both in looks and in manners"; and when she stands, she hunches her shoulders and drops her head, looking up from this bent and tentative posture. Her shyness is so devastating that it "amount[s] almost to paranoia." It is so acute that she experiences it as physical distress, even as it seems to originate in the painful, aberrant condition of her body.2

Despite and because of these ailments and failures, she is full of energy, furiously hungry to learn about the world, and desperate for autonomy.

In the early evenings she is occasionally required to present herself to her parents for inspection: to her beautiful mother, in her late twenties at the turn of the century and always perfectly arrayed, with flowers in her hat, feather boa around her neck; and to her father, not handsome but impeccably dressed, with his taste for fine suits and shoes and his professional knowledge of textiles and clothing. [End Page 371] Like other privileged girls of this era, she is dressed "as a pale and meagre version of [her] mother," but on these occasions, when she is still very young and summoned to the drawing room, this nursemaid helps her slip a special pinafore over her ordinary day dress.3 The pinafore is made of white muslin edged with Valenciennes lace and has insertions through which blue ribbons are threaded; the ribbons bubble up into voluptuous bows on her shoulders. For a moment, in this garment, she is transformed—suffused with pleasure and self-confidence.

This fragile, awkward, defective girl, called "charmless" by her parents, became a woman who organized her life around the transformative experience and display of elegance—became a woman of high polish and even (in Virginia Woolf's estimation) "rather excessive charm."4 She renamed herself, at Gertrude Stein's suggestion: discarding her less-than-euphonious family name, McHarg, and taking the floral, pretty surname of an ex-husband, whose name she had refused when they married, she became Madge Garland. With the help of Dorothy Todd, the editor of British Vogue and her lover for several years in the mid-1920s, she took her graceless figure and remade it, learning how to stand and move and dress; she pulled herself up by the spine to live a life in which flawless posture had meaning. She took her paucity of formal education and invented an education in art and a life in style to compensate herself.

Rejecting any training in docility, she nevertheless often outfitted herself to look as though she embraced it. "She really was a rebel," a friend observed. "But in many ways such an unlikely-looking rebel."5 Hyperfeminine and exquisitely turned out, she developed a style that was distinctive yet correct—that played on correctness and in fact was more than correct. But the appearance and the fact of professional assurance were equally important to her. Throughout her long life Madge Garland devoted her...


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pp. 371-390
Launched on MUSE
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