Miss Silver’s Wardrobe Precepts

Have you ever wanted a simple, sane, reliable wardrobe that lets you be you and just works?
So have I – and then I found someone who has one: Miss Maud Silver, from the novels of Patricia Wentworth.
I carefully scrutinized how she did it, and here are the results: ten precepts to guide you toward a wardrobe that works for you.Edwardian lady writing (6908558900)Precept the First: Do not be limited by fashion.
Choose clothes that you like, that suit you and work for your life, and pay no heed to whether they are in fashion or not.
Furthermore, if such clothes are not readily available, feel free to alter what is available to suit yourself.
Miss Silver, for example, prefers a high neck, and has her dresses adapted accordingly.

Precept the Second: To thine own self be true.
Never use clothing as a way to pretend to be someone or something you’re not.
Do not be embarrassed to be seen repeatedly in the same clothes; nor ashamed to be seen in old clothes, if well cared for.
Miss Silver would certainly agree that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” as Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have said.

A Working Class Family in Wartime- Every Day Life With the Suter Family in London, 1940 D788Precept the Third: Choose quality.
Don’t shop needlessly, but when you must buy, buy the best you can afford. To buy an inferior garment which won’t last is a false economy.
And naturally, having bought good quality, you will want to take good care of it, with appropriate washing, pressing, mending and so forth.

Precept the Fourth: Have a line of succession.
In due course of wear your once-new “best” will be relegated to “second best” and so forth, down the line of wear, and a new “best” will be acquired.
This policy works in many different areas of the wardrobe, although the time involved may be different for different areas.
Miss Silver buys a new summer and winter dress every year, but new hats are acquired much less often.

A customer tries on a new hat in the millinery department of Bourne and Hollingsworth on London's Oxford Street in 1942. D6596
Precept the Fifth: Buy flexible clothing.
Look for clothes which work for more than one level of formality. Miss Silver wears last year’s summer silk dress for evening-wear, for example.
There’s no point in buying, say, a special-occasions-only dress which becomes entirely useless once it’s worn enough to no longer be suitable for special occasions.

Precept the Sixth: Coordinate accessories.
Miss Silver has her hats, coat, shoes, stockings, gloves and handbag in black. These coordinate with each other and with all her dresses, and she is thus spared the need to buy and maintain multiple sets of everything.
Of course, you needn’t choose black, nor all matching, but make sure everything works together.

Teacher in a Negro grammar school in her bedroom at home. 8d20236vPrecept the Seventh: Be selective in ornamentation.
Choose a few favourite ornaments. You need no others.
(This doesn’t include any family heirlooms you do not wear yourself but are waiting to pass down to younger members of the family.)
Miss Silver has a string of gold filigree beads, a locket with her late parents’ initials, and three brooches (one of which carries her pince-nez). Note: she doesn’t wear them all at once.

Precept the Eighth: Make use of trimmings.
A plain hat, for example, can be varied from year to year by altering the trimmings (which can themselves be recycled).
Trimmings can also be removed from worn-out garments and attached to the new, as Miss Silver does with the trim on her dressing-gown.
One can also choose to trim the clothing no one sees. (Miss Silver has three rows of crocheted lace trimming on her knicker legs.)
Detalj, pipkrage - Livrustkammaren - 68113Precept the Ninth: Make it yourself.
Miss Silver not only crocheted the aforementioned trimming, she designed it herself.
She also knits an endless series of garments (although generally they are for friends and family, rather than herself).
Making things yourself allows for endless customization. Quite literally, suit yourself.

Precept the Tenth: Always have a handkerchief.
Clean, plain, and of a sensible size. You never know when they will come in handy – nor for what.

A Gentlewoman’s Hats

Detective Inspector Frank Abbott of Scotland Yard, whom she not infrequently reproves for extravagance of speech, has been known to declare that Miss Silver has only one hat, and that it is fifteen years old if it is a day. This is not the case.
LusMerkelbach1921She has always possessed at least two hats, a straw for summer and a felt for winter wear. In fact, she usually has two of each, since at stated intervals a new one is acquired and its predecessor relegated to second-best. All these hats are black and of an invariable shape, though there are seasonal variations in the shape of ribbon bows and little bunches of flowers… [This hat] had a meek black ribbon bow on one side and a tight bunch of pansies and mignonette on the other. The bow was clamped to the hat by a jet buckle. The pansies were transfixed by a dangerous-looking steel hatpin. Nothing could have been more consoling commonplace. Nobody could have looked less like a private detective.
The Ivory Dagger, Patricia Wentworth

Dr. Jeeves and Mr. Hyde Wooster

We are all, to some extent, Jekyll and Hyde. I don’t mean to suggest that we all make & take potions and turn into insane murderers (I feel sure I would have noticed), but we all have different sides to our selves. Not good vs evil necessarily, but, say, left-brain vs. right-brain.

Left hemisphere throbbing

The writing teacher Dorothea Brande suggests that in order to make the best use of these different elements of ourselves – she is speaking of the creative and critical functions – it is best to consider and develop them separately.

“By isolating as far as possible the functions of these two sides of the mind, even by considering them not merely as aspects of the same mind but as separate personalities, we can arrive at a kind of working metaphor, impossible to confuse with reality, but infinitely helpful in self-education.”

To arrive at the working metaphor: that was my goal. As I have mentioned before, there are few things I enjoy more than a really good metaphor.
Left brain / right brain, however, isn’t much of a metaphor, and it’s hard to visualize for someone who has never seen her brain (and doesn’t much want to).

inner child

The next classic metaphor is the “inner child” – which didn’t really work for me. While my creative side is frequently childlike, it isn’t like a child – and my “adult” self is frequently less than adult!

The thing is, in order to make the best use of the two sides, they need to work together; there needs to be a kind of equality between them. Adult/child is not a relationship of equality.

Yes, the creative side needs to submit to the ordered side’s discipline, or nothing would ever be achieved; but the ordered side’s authority is exercised solely to create the best conditions for the creative side. (Or at least it should be.)

I started considering relationships where this is the case.

Edwardian lady writing (6908558900)

The Governess, I decided, was an excellent metaphor for the ordered side: she governs, she educates, she assesses, she provides encouragement and rebuke as necessary, and she wields her authority for the good of her charge.

The only downside is that governesses do all this for children, and my inner self, etc etc. I suppose it is possible to have a governess for a lunatic (seems like something Chesterton would write) but I’m not sure that I’m that far gone.

Then I had a brain-wave: Jeeves and Wooster. Bertram Wilberforce Wooster is the immature undisciplined creative all-over-the-place person par excellence, and Jeeves’ whole raison d’être is to provide for his every need (if not want) and keep him out of prison, matrimony, and unsuitable apparel.

Books About Town, Book Benches, Jeeves And Wooster Stories

As mentally satisfying as that metaphor was, it still wasn’t quite ‘me’. My ordered side is more a Miss Silver than a Jeeves, and I’d like to think my creative side is less clueless than a Wooster. The Great Metaphor Hunt went on.

Eventually I realized that the metaphors for the two sides don’t have to ‘belong’ together, as satisfying as it would be if they did. I could pair the Governess metaphor with a non-child metaphor. But what?

The creative side really was much harder to pin down, which is fitting, I suppose. After some thought, I settled on the Jester – one of those simple souls who capers about singing songs of joy or sorrow and saying the sorts of things that reasonable people get their heads chopped off for. This is the side of me that laughs at toilet humour and howls at the moon. (I think it is best for everybody if I don’t sing.)

Decamps Les danseurs albanais

Interestingly, I’ve noticed a difference in what I like to wear, depending on which aspect is in the ascendant, or in use, whichever way you like to look at it.
The Governess side of me likes to wear 1930s style clothes: tailored, smart and tidy. The Jester, on the other hand, has a more medieval aesthetic: flowing garments one can move freely in, preferably topped with a funny hat of some sort (with or without bells).

Perhaps I can use that as a way to toggle the two sides. The Governess makes the plans for the day’s work, and then on go the ancestral dressing-gown and the funny hat, and the Jester comes out to play. When it comes time to review and edit, off with the funny hat.

John Ellys Hester Booth as a female Harlequin VA

Do you have recognized sides to your self? Do you have metaphors for them? I’d love to know!