Couples

Took a few days "off" to finish Couples by Updike, who I everlastingly love.

Most of the clothing/body descriptions here are about sex, seduction, etc, as it is quite a racy book--didn't spend nine months on the NYT Bestseller List because of its charming description of the architecture of a mid-century New England town.

Especially at first, when much is still unknown about the relationships between characters, clothing descriptions are limited to the relationship between garments and specific body parts.  Not worth quoting here; we've all heard it.

What I significantly do love about this book is that either as a function of the year (1968) and a different understanding of clothing as discussed here before, or possibly John Updike's interest in preserving the origins of adjectives, two words are (rightfully) capitalized where we often do not any longer:

Sunbathing: "Piet jealously shucked his shoes and socks and trousers, leaving his underpants, Paisley drawers." (55)  It's a place AND a pattern.

The second is a word not immediately dress-specific, but is given marginal dress implications by one of the characters:
"'You are a scandalous wife.  I have never slept with Janet.'
'In a way, I want you to.  In a Lesbian way.  I felt very drawn, lying beside her on the beach.  I think I must be very Sapphic.  I'd love to have a girls' school, where we'd all wear chitons and play field hockey and sit around listening to poetry after warm baths.'" (221)

...So.  Chitons like...dress of ancient Greeks chitons?  To indicate...equality among women and eliminate gendered notions of dress?  Or is that too 2011 for 1968?  In any case, I just love that in capitalizing Lesbian, Updike reflects what I take to be contemporary usage on his characters; the word as a function of the island and the poetry of Sapphos, as opposed to a lowercase descriptor applied to a contemporary group with specific sexual preferences.  Hence, chitons, I suppose?

A few contemporary descriptions, for good measure:

"Holding the bulky baby in one arm and a steaming paper bag in the other, Janet arrived at seven-thirty.  She wore a knee-length mink coat, a coat she had owned since early marriage but that, pretentious and even comical in Tarbox, usually hung idle in a mothproofed bag.  Beneath the coat, she was wonderfully dressed: in a poppy-orange silk blouse and blue jeans shrunk and splotch-bleached like a teen-ager's and white calf-length boots she pulled off to reveal bare feet.  Seeing her pose thus clothed in his long living room (on the shaggy cerulean rug her toes were rosy from the cold, the insteps and sides of her feet lilac white, her heels and the joints of her toes dusted with pollen), Harold felt his entire frame relax and sweeten.  Even Marcia was moved, to think her husband had once possessed such a splendid mistress." (169)

"Ben sat staring, his dark eyes moist with disquiet.  He had recently shaved, and looked enfeebled, slack-chinned, mockingly costumed in sailing clothes--a boat-neck jersey, a windbreaker, a white officer's cap, and suntans cut down to make shorts, fringed with loose threads....Ben's lank [leg] hairs ran together to make black seams, like sores downrunning into the tops of his comically new topsiders, cup-soled, spandy-bright." (240)

So much in this, but is this the opposite of above, where now we all have to capitalize Topsiders and add the copyright symbol in deference to Sperry?  This is something that seems to be recurring, when does a certain style become a brand, or a Thing? (see: "Dark and Stormy" if we're talking sailing)  Or when does it go from being a narrowly defined Thing with a specific and familiar origin to an impossibly nuanced concept (Lesbian)?

Pregnant: "...she was vast, a full sail in pale wool, one of the high tight turbans fashionable that fall covering her hair and making her face appear stripped and sleek. ...
'...is that a new hat?' 
'It's called, "a hat to meet your mother at the airport in, to show her you're doing all right."' 'It's very successful.'" (283)

Some other brilliant but somewhat tedious descriptions of fashionable "deep décolletage" can be found on pages 310-11, one of the longest passages describing dress in the book, and also interesting as commentary on "mourning dress", as the party the couples are attending on these pages was held despite the bum luck of being scheduled the day Kennedy was shot.

And finally, because I have in the past few weeks had an accidental and unofficial theme of Youthquake/generation clash, with special emphasis on the 1960s:
"So the Reinhardts, and the young sociologist who had been elected town moderator, and a charmingly yet unaffectedly bohemian children's book illustrator who had moved from Bleeker Street, and the new Unitarian minister in Tarbox, and their uniformly tranquil wives, formed a distinct social set, that made its own clothes, and held play readings, and kept sex in its place, and experimented with LSD, and espoused liberal causes more militantly than even Irene Saltz." (476)

This is great: the fact that this group "made its own clothes" is equally as significant as drug use and political activism, perhaps better-known generalizations about American twenty-somethings in the 1960s.

Updike, John. Couples. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, Inc, 1969.