Who would have thought that references to academic dress would do anything other than add some descriptive colour? Yet here we have a series of descriptions of how women present themselves at a reunion of their college, and every comment reveals something about the wearer and the observer.
How intriguing to find a familiar level of cattiness among the elite intelligentsia of 80 years ago, when celebrity gossip and bashing our sisters were joys yet to come.
Harriet Vane, the novel’s heroine, is infuriatingly on the button when it comes to getting it right.
Preparing for the college reunion, she pulls off the difficult feat of making an academic gown and hood look stylish.
Town and Gown
She knows how to pull the heavy gown forward so that the folds fall nicely, and knows just the right twist for the hood so the scarlet silk turns outwards.
What’s more, she understands the importance of what you wear underneath the gown. Her choice is a black dress with a small, square yoke and long, close sleeves, with a frill from the wrist to the knuckle. It outlines her figure and falls full-skirted to the ground.
Harriet, we salute your appearance — appropriate, dignified, attractive.
We almost forgive you dissing your less well-turned-out contemporaries, the ones who wear shocking shades of green and canary yellow and the one who is foolish enough to think that a pale yellow frock with muslin frills is a good choice for beneath a gown.
We understand your irritation in those who wear their caps badly, while yours lies properly flat and straight with the peak in the centre of the forehead. You are entitled to your opinion that the hat worn by a ‘tightly-corseted woman of sixty’ is more suited to an 18-year-old at Ascot.
What is just a little bit suspect is Dorothy L Sayers’ allocation of good dress sense. Harriet herself, and the estimable Dean of the college, who are women of significance, wear their gear correctly and confidently.
But the woman in the unfortunate shade of green is shown to be dull and uninteresting, and the one who shows ‘intellectual rot’ by joining a nudist sect is given a badly cut dress to indicate her fall from academic grace. ‘If you can’t be naked, be as ill-dressed as possible’ is the acerbic comment.
Mock the frock
One of the unpleasant occurrences at the college is the discovery of a dummy dressed up as a female academic, wearing a dress and cap and gown, with a bread knife in its stomach.
Harriet asks if anyone recognises the dress, which she describes with the detail of a journalist on Fashion Week’s Front Row: ‘a black semi-evening crepe-de-chine, figured with bunches of red and green poppies, with a draped cross-over front, deep hip-yoke and flared skirt and sleeves about three years out of date’.
Now there’s a woman who knows her stuff. Note the killer accuracy of ‘three years out of date’. You wouldn’t want Harriet scrutinising your wardrobe.
But the responses from Mrs Goodwin and Miss Shaw as they discuss whether or not the dress belongs to Miss Wrigley, deciding that no, hers had a square neck and no hip-yoke, are presented with just a touch of mockery.
Miss Shaw (Modern Languages) is defined as a soft and sentimental character with a tiresome need to be best friends with her students, while Mrs Goodwin, the widowed department secretary with a young son away at school, inhabits the less academically rarified real world. Only the intellectual elite, it seems, can be interested in fashion.
This category, of course, includes the scholarly and academic Ms Sayers herself.
Gaudy Night is studded with delightful references to clothes. There are women in a black silk marocain dress (marocain is a kind of heavy crepe — sounds quite nice, see the picture on the right), a yellow djibbah, masculine-looking tweeds. There’s a stout man in a blue suit and linen hat.
There are discussions about the merits of a soft-pleated dress shirt for men as opposed to the more rigid type. The students’ outfits for boating on the Cherwell demonstrate the post-war decline in standards of dress — grubby shorts, exposed mosquito-bitten legs, gaily coloured beach sandals.
Harriet herself takes to the punt in ‘seemly and comfortable’ garb, and the Dean comments that her ‘clothed, clean and cool’ appearance will make her conspicuous.
Harriet knows the power of an ‘exceedingly well-cut coat and skirt’. Lord Peter Wimsey is ‘tailored to swooning-point’ and wears his pale grey topper at an acute backward slant.
But in the potent, low-key proposal scene at the end of the book, they are depicted as Senior Members of the University, dressed in their academic regalia. Peter removes his square cap and stands submissively before her. The timeless, traditional robes bestow an air of solemnity and gravitas as they embrace closely and passionately.