When Polly Devlin married in clingy jersey …
Three of the most beautiful crops in the world – the golden wheat, the bright green vine and the blue-grey olive – grow together in felicitous harmony in Tuscany. As well as these harvested plants, great clumps of meadow grass, unsolicited wild flowers, rosemary and other herbs spread themselves lavishly around and the entwined result is better than any grand cultivated garden. This breathtaking beauty is pinned to the ground by the dark tall cypress trees which punctuate and define the landscape of Tuscany and add a kind of melancholy to the sun-drenched land with its hilltop farms and low mixed scrubby maquis.
The man I was to marry had a villa there – or rather, a casa colonica which is not as grand as a villa – and we went there in the summer. White oxen still moved like mythical beasts in silence among the vines which, in turn, were held up by old wood trellises (now concrete posts and sputtering tractors). Birds scuttered and scolded up away, away from you into that cobalt sky and butterflies and insects rose in a cloud. There are more butterflies in Italy than anywhere else in Europe (60 per cent of all species) and I think it was there, and then, that I unconsciously conceived the idea of the making of the meadows that occupied and preoccupied us for so many years of our married life afterwards in Somerset.
So it is 1967 and a hot August day and walking through this paradise, down the valley, towards a little ruined chapel which has been opened up and brushed out for this day, the first time for 50 years, is a woman shielded by a white parasol, wearing a white lacy dress studded with rhinestones which catch the light – a foreign gleam among the lovely greenery. An intricate border of white pleated silk flowers surrounds the hem of the dress which reaches about halfway down her thighs.
Those thighs were not as skinny as she would like, as the fashion then is for mini-skirts which only just skim your private parts; so the legs revealed had to be like those of an adolescent or an anorexic. (One of my favourite Evelyn Waugh stories is of him sitting beside Enid Someone who confides brightly “I don’t know why they are called private parts. Mine aren’t at all …”) The fashionable thing was to be a dolly bird. The avatar for this look was the model Twiggy and I resented enormously how she – innocently – changed how fashionable girls and women should look from womanly to androgynous.
You’ll have guessed by now, my gentle and clever reader, that the woman making her way down the hill is me, moi, anch’io on my wedding day. Not an hour before I had fled the house at a gallop, run up the hill to the road that led from Castellina to Siena to try to hitch a lift so I could get away from the whole idea of a wedding, and marriage to a man I suddenly didn’t know. I was in a right old panic, sick and shaking. Strangely enough no car stopped to pick up a woman in a sparkly dress with a flowery headdress sprinting along a country road like a person lately escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane. Behind in full pursuit was my sister – my bridesmaid – who was always a better runner than me and she caught up with me just as I climbed into a car driven by Ted Bundy by the look of him. She hauled me out and began to talk me down and talk me back to where guests from England and Ireland were waiting for a wedding.
Jean Muir had made the sparkly wedding dress. She was a famous British fashion designer in the sixties and seventies in England with no formal training but her pared-down jersey dresses, often in her signature navy blue, were the height of fashion. Clinging jersey is an unforgiving fabric and one had to be pencil thin to wear it. So many of us young women were between a rock and a hard place then – fashion was a cruel business if you didn’t conform to a type. To be a willowy creature in Jean Muir’s second skin dresses was no easy matter.
Polly Devlin on her wedding day, with her husband Andy Garnett.
I had absolutely no idea what my wedding dress should or would look like. Well, I never, ever, ever thought about the wedding. It would somehow happen, as my life had happened, and I would be married. But my future mother-in-law took me to lunch to discuss her fancy plans for a wedding in St Peter’s in Eaton Square and a ball in the evening. I was dumb with astonished shockhorror. Then she gathered me up and took me to Belinda Belville’s wonderful atelier. Belinda, who became a friend, designed many of the clothes that the royal princesses wore and lovely they were but the idea of wearing one of her designs left me feeling a sort of strangulated fear. I had no idea about style but I knew the style I didn’t want.
It was in that salon that I learnt how committed you had to be to mind about fashion and clothes – the choosing of fabric, the measurements, the fittings, the money, the time. The very thought drove me distraught. But then again so did shopping (except of course, for beautiful objects in obscure places).
And out of the blue, the bridegroom-to-be announced that we were to marry in Tuscany. The dress was cancelled, the church disengaged and the priest from Chelsea, a terrible old snob, was informed. He was not best pleased. My mother-in-law fell into an imploded rage. He was an only child, and she had always had such plans for the occasion. There were terrible ructions, she wouldn’t attend the wedding and I don’t think she ever forgave him. I was filled with deep relief. I felt I could wear a straw skirt on my head in Tuscany and no one would notice.
And then, heaven’s above, Jean Muir offered to make my wedding dress. It was not with surprise and delight that I greeted her offer though I put a good enough face on it and was suitably grateful, it was the thought of what I would look like in white crepe jersey. Don’t even go there. And then she produced the sketch of this dream-like white confection, skimming the body indeed but floating out as it fell the short route downwards towards the hemming rosettes.
Everything about this story is about fashion and not just the clothes. A few years later Tuscany became the most fashionable place to have a second home and every second hilltop farm was owned by a British family and had a swimming pool and white oxen and straggly vines became as old hat as wearing ostrich plumes in your hair, and Jean Muir died.