Review: Costume Since 1945: Historical Dress from Street Style to Couture

Deirdre Clancy’s Costume Since 1945 is pretty much what it says on the tin: an illustrated history of the key fashions and modes of dress that were prominent throughout the second half of the 20th century. Clancy is a costume designer, and the book’s illustrated not with photographs but with Clancy’s own drawings, miniature people modelling the looks she’s talking about in the text.

It’s an interesting idea – interesting enough to enough people, apparently, that the book is now in its second edition – but I think I wanted clearer images pointing out key silhouettes (silhouettes, as I’ve recently learned, being more important to recreating the feel of historical dress than the actual garments).

I also seem to remember that the text is very iffy when it comes to identities that aren’t white, cishet and abled. There is some treatment of non-Western fashions but it’s not in any way systematic, and Clancy in many cases doesn’t provide the context to make their inclusion meaningful or helpful. There aren’t I think any disabled people represented, and the book also features outdated terminology for trans people (the second edition came out in 2015). I guess it might be useful as a general reference text, but it wasn’t quite as comprehensive or informative as I expected and it wouldn’t be my first choice.

Review: The Thieves of Ostia

Caroline Lawrence’s The Thieves of Ostia is the first in her 17-book Roman Mysteries series for MG readers, which follows the various crime-solving exploits of its young heroine Flavia Gemina and her friends in various locations across the Roman Empire. This first novel sees Flavia assemble her squad (her Jewish neighbour Jonathan, the African slave Nubia, and mute orphan Lupus) and solve the murder of Jonathan’s dog Boba.

The novel’s primary purpose is didactic, as its back cover copy announces: it “tells you just what it was like to live in Ancient Rome.” (Interestingly, the same is true of the BBC TV series later adapted from it: Wikipedia cites a Times review calling it “a tremendous way for younger viewers to learn about ancient history.”) So, the gang careers around a historically accurate map of Ostia in AD 79; the text is sprinkled liberally with Latin and Latin-derived words like “pater”, “impluvium”, “sestercii” (all defined in a glossary at the back of the book); characters discuss, rather infodumpily, concepts like at what age it’s appropriate for one to recline to eat.

Does it really “tell you just what it was like to live in Ancient Rome”? Well: it certainly contains a lot of facts about Roman life and customs, woven quite palatably into a light crime narrative which is less upsetting than you’d expect given the number of dogs that die in it. Unfortunately, that factual density doesn’t really translate into a coherent emotional sense of what Ancient Rome was like: these are very much psychologically modern protagonists living in a Roman theme park. On the very first page, for example:

Flavia had just settled herself in the garden by the fountain, with a cup of peach juice and her favourite scroll.

I think it’s the facetiousness of “her favourite scroll” that makes this so wince-inducing; the implication that young Romans related to scrolls – cumbersome, handwritten things – exactly as we relate to books in an age of mass print media. Would it even have been practical to read a scroll on a bench in the garden, given the rather cumbersome format? What, for that matter, is Flavia’s “favourite scroll”?

Lawrence’s handling of slavery demonstrates a similar conceptual mismatch. Flavia buys Nubia early in the novel because Nubia is pretty and about Flavia’s age, and Flavia feels sorry for her – as are we supposed to. She treats Nubia as a friend and equal, and at one point has a discussion with her father about freeing her. Meanwhile, the slaver Venalicious, who sold Nubia to Flavia in the first place, is one of the text’s villains, a bogeyman who threatens to enslave Flavia and her friends at every opportunity. We’re not, however, encouraged to feel sorry for Flavia’s father’s house slaves, Caudex and Alma, who are both generally depicted as happy members of the family who just happen to do all of the menial work. Funny, too, how the perp turns out to be a greedy freedman (called, with thudding literalism, Libertus). Lawrence wants to establish Flavia as a sympathetic protagonist who does good whenever she can, but her cultural background doesn’t support that reading.

(It’s worth noting that there were other choices Lawrence could have made that wouldn’t have had Flavia endorsing slavery: Jonathan’s family don’t keep slaves for moral/religious reasons.)

Does this matter? The Thieves of Ostia is, after all, a children’s book; and one that’s pretty diverse for its age (how many other children’s novels from 2001 can you name that feature a black girl, a disabled person, multiple non-middle-class perspectives and a Jewish boy among their main characters? that aren’t Issues novels?). Is it really a failing that it does not portray Roman exceptionalism in all its gory detail?

Well, yes, in that it contributes to the general nostalgic rose-tinting of history in the West which falsely constructs the past as “a simpler time”, as basically just like today except without computers and gay people. (You can see this going on very clearly in that passage about the peach juice and Flavia’s favourite scroll: that’s so blatantly a cup of tea and a good book given a Roman spin.) Roman cities were crammed with shoddily built multi-storey tenements that would fall down at a moment’s notice. Roman women – even high-born ones like Flavia – had vanishingly few rights. Fire and disease were constant threats. Like, some of this stuff is alluded to in the text, and especially in later novels, but it’s all in this highly sanitised “oh isn’t this quaint” fashion which, to return to the claim on the book’s back cover, does not in any way convey what it would really have been like to live under those conditions. Or, more interestingly, how the Romans thought about those conditions – which would undoubtedly have been different to how we think about those conditions. Children are a lot more astute as readers than we give them credit for; children’s fiction should challenge preconceived notions and attitudes, not reinforce them.

Review: The Tropic of Serpents

Marie Brennan’s The Tropic of Serpents is the second in her Lady Trent series, which follows the eponymous naturalist around her steampunk-inflected alternate world in search of dragons of various types and sizes. In this case, Isabella (not yet a Lady, and not yet a Trent – these novels being positioned as her memoirs) is headed for Bayembe, an analogue of an African country where colonial interests and the ambitions of neighbouring countries are contributing to a tense political situation – which Isabella and her companions of course get caught up in. As a result, they find themselves descending into the Green Hell, a tropical jungle/swamp that’s impossible to navigate or even survive without the aid of its indigenous people, the Moulish.

A key theme of this series, it seems to me, is exploration. Of course Isabella is a heroine made in the mould of colonial explorers like Indiana Jones or Jules Verne’s intrepid adventurers in novels like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Journey to the Centre of the Earth; but whereas those protagonists ultimately seek to export imperial European values around the world, Brennan, aware of the pitfalls and false assumptions implicit in such an approach, is much more interested in exploring social alternatives to life in Scirling, her Britain analogue. Far from seeking to impose Scirling values on the people they meet in the course of their researches, Isabella and her companions choose to assimilate instead. Often this is more about convenience than anything else; gaining the favour of local people means they have greater freedom to study dragons. But it’s notable that Isabella is staunchly opposed to the use of violence, unlike her colonial literary forebears.

So, for instance, Isabella and her companions live for a time among the Moulish, who have little use for a concept of individual property, given their nomadic lives and how easy it is to replace the objects they do use from the materials in the forest. Later on in the novel there’s also a good example of how spiritual beliefs shape worldview and, in a way, reality: believing Isabella to be cursed because of a series of mishaps she’s suffered in the forest, the Moulish press her to take part in a purification ceremony in which she clears the air with anyone she’s wronged. Among other things, she admits her true motives to the Moulish and hashes out a longstanding conflict with one of her companions, the working-class Thomas Wilker. Although Isabella sees the ceremony as superstitious nonsense, participating only in order to keep peace with her hosts, it works: the party encounter fewer setbacks and everyone trusts and respects each other more. The point being that living among the Moulish and participating in their customs opens up social possibilities that don’t exist in Scirling society.

There are other points of difference from Scirling culture whose social implications are explored in varying detail: for instance, while staying in the palace of Bayembe’s king Ankumata, Isabella and her female companion Natalie are required to seclude themselves away from the rest of the court during menstruation. While Isabella chafes at this restriction, she discovers that the other women of the court see it as a kind of holiday, as they don’t have to do any work during this period. And we learn that the people of Bayembe and its surrounding countries trace inheritance down the female line, not the male – as a single woman Isabella presents an interesting opportunity to Ankumata’s son, given that if he married her Scirling custom would allow him to pass property down to his children, which he couldn’t do under Bayembe tradition. That last struck me as an interesting look back at empire, a reversal of the imperial gaze: if Isabella, a member of an imperial nation even if her outlook isn’t especially colonial, benefits from exploring social possibilities beyond Scirling, then the nations subject to her gaze can explore back, as it were, turning Scirling’s patriarchal social norms to their advantage.

But the most important work of exploration here is not external but internal. Isabella and her companions Natalie and Tom are all three of them working out modes of being that run counter to what’s expected in Scirling society. Isabella is a woman in a patriarchal society trying to figure out how she can be taken seriously as a scientist in her own right; Tom is a working-class man trying to break into a scientific field dominated by the middle and upper classes who look down on him for his origins; Natalie is exploring her sexuality, specifically her lack of it, and navigating conflict with her family around her resistance to marriage. In pushing against what’s expected of women and working-class people in Scirling society, each of them is trying to reimagine it as a place in which they can achieve their full potential – so their exploration of different societies around the world is an outward reflection of this personal, internal struggle.

Which brings us to the inescapable fact that, despite its respectful treatment of the Moulish and Bayembe societies, despite the presence of developed, interesting characters like Ankumata (whose leg braces are a rare example of positively presented disability aids in this sort of fiction) and the half-Moulish Faj Rawango, The Tropic of Serpents is still an Anglocentric novel; it’s still told from the perspective of empire. As Electra Pritchett points out here, a character like Ankumata or Faj Rawango could never be the protagonist without making it a different sort of story; the memoirs of a Victorian naturalist are always going to centre an imperial perspective. Isabella, Natalie and Tom may be exploring different social possibilities but they are not doing so from a neutral position; they are benefiting from the social insights they gain ultimately to enrich empire and empire’s goal of knowing the world through science.

This is a limitation of the subgenre Brennan’s working in rather than a limitation of this specific novel; but it is a limitation all the same. Identity politics aside, the novel itself is not particularly nuanced or complex – it follows a single narrative thread linearly through to its end in serviceable but not brilliant prose; rereading offers no overlooked delights. It’s a reasonably entertaining tale with a diversity of characters to recommend it, and I think in the end that’s all it strives to be – it’s not something that’s seeking to overturn the genre at a stroke. That’s fine! Not everything can be truly revolutionary. But this isn’t a book I’ll be returning to, I think.