Thursday, January 28, 2010
December 1955, l'Official
My first week in grad school a professor asked us to write about fashion in a piece of literature. I chose JD Salinger's Franny and Zooey, well actually, just "Franny," the first of the two short stories that make up the book.
Franny and Zooey has been one of my favorite books since the first time I read it, funny, because at 13 I think I missed about half of what was going on. But one of the things about Salinger that spoke to me wasn't just the way he gave a voice to adolescent alienation, but the way he described clothing. He often used clothing to complete a character, or to describe a mood. Holden Caufield's hunting cap, worn with an intention to disregard sartorial norms of the '50s, has become so ubiquitously part of the character that last winter Urban outfitters offered a variety of plaid checked fur-lined hunting caps, listed as "Holden Caps."
When I first read "Franny" I don't even think I knew what a sheared raccoon coat was. I grew up in Florida, my exposure to fur coats was very limited. It was the late '90s, even in my fashion loving mind in my house we were still under the influence of the original early '90s PETA "I'd rather go naked than wear fur campaign" --remember how they got all the supers* to pose nude?-- and my mother's life long vegetarianism.
But, back to Salinger, "Franny" begins with a much anticipated date between the title character, and her boyfriend Lane. As Lane waits on the train platform for Franny to arrive, he realizes he hasn't dressed quite warm enough for the weather has shoved his ungloved hands in his pockets and goes to pull his muffler down around his neck (this was another foreign sounding article of clothing for me, in Florida mufflers were for your car) and his Burberry raincoat marks him as a member of a certain Northeasten upperclass (even thirteen year old me knew that). When Franny arrives and exits the train Lane notices she is wearing a sheared raccoon coat and has a moment of inner pride about how he was the "only one on the platform who really knew" that coat. He remembers kissing her and then kissing the coat as if it was a perfectly "organic" extension of herself. The coat serves both as a stand in for Franny and as a symbol of their intimacy.
Later, as their lunch date goes sour, Lane looks at this coat again in disgust. At first he had been please to be in the right place with the "right-looking girl." But as Franny is unimpressed by his pseudo intellectualism and going on about his Flaubert paper he becomes frustrated. What had before seemed beautiful and classic before seems old and worn as he notices the coat's interior lining, and how it hangs sadly over the back of her chair when she gets up to go to the restroom. This of course mirrors his frustrations at realizing that he doesn't know Franny as well as he thinks he does and that the interior is not as picture perfect as he would like it to be. Franny is in the middle of a crisis of faith (perhaps brought on a by a possible pregnancy, perhaps by the deaths of two of her brothers?) but lane can't or won't get over himself enough to see it.
Franny and Zooey is obviously about a lot more than the appropriate attire of the college set in the 1950s. But Salinger's attention to what at first seems like mundane detail is one of the things that has made his writting speak to so many generations of frustrated adolescents. Fashion is, more often than not, one of the details that makes something seem just so, and just right.
So thank you JD Salinger, for teaching a Southern girl what a sheared Raccoon coat is.
*for you non fashion-y types, that means supermodels