The Dress as a Metaphor in Muriel Spark’s 1963 novella “The Girls of Slender Means”

A Schiaparelli dress functions as token of membership for the residents of the May of Teck Club in Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means. The expensive couture dress, which most of the club’s members would not be able to afford, is a symbol of the social and economic unification which temporarily arose in post-war Britain as a result of the devastation of the second world war. Rationing and commiserating over old luxuries periodically levels the social hierarchy established by the members of the May of Teck of Club. Within this system of rogue egalitarianism, the luxurious gown owned by a sassy younger club-member named Anne acts as a sartorial poker chip which enables the girls’ social gambles. 

            “This marvelous dress,” writes Spark, “caused a stir wherever it went.”[1] Spark’s language—Marvelous! Cause a stir! —mimics the language intoned by midcentury women’s fashion magazines. Periodicals such as VogueWomen’s Wear Daily, and Town and Country spoke specifically to beehive-haired housewives and instructed such women on how to dress, what to cook, where to spend their next vacation, and perhaps most importantly, how to cultivate an image of allure. “Everyone’s trying to take a peek,” coos a Schiaparelli advertisement from the June 1955 issue of Women’s Wear Daily.[2] The same advertisement encourages women to wear garments marked with “a frivolous flourish of fabulous details.” This unmistakable style of “ad-lingo” flavored the sticky-sweet pages of women’s magazines for the first half of the twentieth century and cultivated a forced sense of frivolity which sustained the notion of female consumers as societal frill. The page purrs, “so enchanting,” inviting women to take the plunge into siren-dom and become as enchanting as the clothes they could so easily own and don. Netflix’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel acts as a contemporary example of mid-century ad-lingo aimed at women. The show’s title alone—Marvelous!— bears the Sparkian reference to the unmistakable language of womenswear advertisements. 

Spark, trained in the business of briskness, uses “marvelous” as a direct allusion to a commercialized writing style which is opposite of her own. Never intending to “cause a stir” as a writer, Spark’s word choice represents exactly what separates her from the characters she crafts—conspicuousness. Spark’s characters wear garish clothing and conduct loud phone calls which echo through the pages of her novels. “It’s not me, it’s a character,” writes Spark in “My Conversion,” as if testifying before a jury of readers.[3] Spark further distances herself from the antics of the attention-seeking literary crew of her own creation when she describes her writing style as “simply not caring too much.”[4] The girls of slender means, on the other hand, care quite a bit. Selina, who possesses a “queenly eminence,” cares so greatly about luxury and appearance that she re-enters the burning May of Teck club at the culmination of the novel with the sole purpose of salvaging Anne’s coveted Schiaparelli dress.[5] Rather than maiming the rescued gown, the fire breathes life into the dress’s symbolic tokenism. The gown, “long and limp and evidently light,” becomes reborn in the arms of Selina—a phoenix feathered in charbroiled taffeta.[6] So lifelike is the dress that Nicholas “thought it was a body.”[7] The scene’s composition evokes an urban, wartime reincarnation of Michelangelo’s Pieta in which Selena, “enfolding” the dress “carefully in her arms” becomes the marbled Virgin Mary and the dress, the soon-to-be resurrected Christ.[8] Thus, the scene functions as a veiled allusion to Spark’s own conversion to Christianity and fulfills Spark’s notion of the artist “as a minor public servant.”[9] Selena, “approaching along the smoky passage” to save the life of a vintage dress, serves as the epitome of Spark’s essential artist-figure.[10]

[1] Spark, Muriel. The Girls 35

[2] Advertisement

[3] Spark, Muriel. “My Conversion” 27

[4] Spark, Muriel. “My Conversion” 27

[5] Spark, Muriel. The Girls 42

[6] Spark, Muriel. The Girls 125

[7] Spark, Muriel. The Girls 125

[8] Spark, Muriel. The Girls 125

[9] Spark, Muriel. “My Conversion” 28

[10] Spark, Muriel. The Girls 125

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