Our caustical correspondent (and author of a putative best seller) researches rubber(!) raincoats, complains about mistaken identity and reports on a suburban sensation.
Cannes at Easter deserves all the encomium of paradise. A mild but brisk wind puts a froth on the sea whilst the mountains behind celebrate the spring with caps of white. The Riviera sun is a gentleman at this season, never rude or too fierce and, in the afternoon, excuses himself to allow some very gentle showers to wash the Boulevard de la Croisette. Residents and visitors match themselves to this civilised climate with rainwear that is quite the smartest I have ever seen. First though is the beautiful leatherwear that is everywhere, and then there are the raincoats in soft smooth rubber on a cotton backing. The style of the coats is unmistakably French: the rubber gives them a soft sheen and is fine enough to hang in beautiful folds. The colours are white, cream, tan, brown, blue and black. The coats are long and loose, some are capes and cowls are common.
Wait just a moment, what the devil was Helen doing in Cannes, I hear you ask? Mind your own business. Then your book ‘Enter with Trumpets’ must be selling like hot confectionery if you can afford to go to the South of France? No, it’s not. It hasn’t earned enough folding money to pay off the hire charges for the typewriter ribbons. Bet you were trying to sell the film rights at the Cannes Film Festival? Believe what you like; see if I care.
Now where was I before you interrupted me? Oh yes. Those lovely rippling raincoats which were worn with colourful shiny rubber or leather boots. I know readers who would like to walk along there with not just their eyes popping out.
The leatherwear though was what really appealed to me. It was in all the clothing shops and the prices would upset you if I mentioned them so I won’t. Sufficient to say that the raincoats cost from £95 upwards and were cheap when compared with the leather.
Beautiful boots: many were of patent leather and many were worn well over the knee with trousers by some very expensive members of my sex.
French women, of course, and most Continental women, are very elegant. They walk well andwear leather with an air which makes it look so right on them whereas in London….
Anyway, I arrived back in London and opened my post only to be greeted with a cutting from the February issue of Harpers. ‘Black rubber macintosh’ said the caption, £8.99 Flip, Long Acre, W.C.2. Black sou’wester £2. Black gauntlets £4.99.’ I looked at the picture. The SBR was so crushed, so creased and so badly made that even the model had decided not to wear it but was carrying it over one shoulder prior, I should think, to dropping it in the nearest puddle. My correspondent was very excited by his discovery and hoped I would rush around to Flip, buy one, wear it, and be photographed in it in Long Acre. I couldn’t bring myself to reply – I might have damaged the typewriter.
The sad thing was the contrast with what I had seen in France with what is being sold here. Women will not wear – and who can blame them – these horrible rubber coats but they would wear – and do wear – gladly the rubber coats that are elegantly designed and made of a material that does not look like waterproof wrapping for machine tools being shipped to the Falklands. When, oh when, will English manufacturers learn and produce something soignee.
However, let’s get a few things clear before we go on. There is, did you know, a British Standard for raincoats? Since the British standard weather is wet it follows there is a British standard for the protection one needs to wear. In this B.S. only specialist clothing designed for those macho people who spend a lot of time outdoors can be marked ‘waterproof’ or ‘rainproof’. Makers who claim their coats are waterproof must be sure that this is so because they risk being prosecuted under the Trades Description Act. Damp customers could get their money back and the maker of the leaky garment risks a heavy fine and being drawn on a tumbril to Tyburn.
The result of this is that ‘waterproof raincoats’ have to be entirely impervious to liquid even below sea level. The seams have to be welded or seamed with waterproof tape. This makes the garment heavy, not very glamorous and uncomfortable to wear in warm weather. So it is hardly surprising that most women don’t care for them unless they find themselves involved in huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ and, with a modest amount of skill, we can avoid that, can’t we?
Most of us want a well cut, elegant, light weight coat that won’t leave us damp and steaming after walking through a sudden shower or a determined downpour. The phrases ‘shower resistant’, ‘rain repellent’ are now avoided by the makers because the British Standard tests are uncertain. Coats fitted on to a dressmaker’s dummy (human volunteers are not required) and put under a shower very rarely survive the two minute test. Ten minutes afterwards the coat is weighed and the figure compared with its original weight. If it has gained noticeably in weight it isn’t a raincoat. It is an almost impossible test and so no manufacturer is anxious to make ‘raincoats’.
Weathercoats is the phrase preferred and the weather preferred for them is a little overcast with sun later.
In my experience, the best raincoats are of foreign manufacture, although a few of our firms seem to have the right ideii but not the elegant cut and best materials. The good materials are ignored because the makers don’t seem to know how to use them and, at the same time, meet the British Standard which is both unnecessary and stupid.
The best advice I can give to anyone looking for a coat that will really cope with our appalling weather is to look first not at the material but the style. Look at the shoulders, check that the seams are double, strengthened or covered by an epaulette or cape to stop water coming through stitch holes. Look at the back: choose a mac which has a pleat rather than a slit at the back. Slits let in the rain which, in this country, can arrive from six different directions at once. Look at the fastenings – they should not gape at the button holes but they should have a big overlap at the front and do up right to the neck. There should be a proper collar, one that can be turned up and closed at the front. Look at the pockets – make sure the openings can’t let any water in and the lining is ‘proofed’. Lined coats are better than unlined. Detachable hoods are also a good idea. I would also choose a swing back style with raglan sleeves since water tends to enter where the coat is tightest.
In my opinion the perfect raincoat should be light in weight. By that I mean it should sit on my shoulders comfortably so you are not concerned with the weight of the material. This is all part of the style. My Atomage cloak is like this.
It is made of a heavy black vinyl and lined, but so well has John Sutcliffe cut the garment that I take the complete weight on the shoulders and, in fact, I am not aware of wearing a coat at all. It does not pull at the neck, nearly strangling me, and the weight of the back – and it is fully circular – is borne again on the shoulders of the wearer.
The rubberised cotton riding mac with welded seams like the Burberry carries a ‘rainproof label and, weight for weight, is heavier than both my cloak and my old favourite (15 years old now) black vinyl coat. Neither of these have labels (except ‘Atomage’) but are just as waterproof. The difference is that the rubberised cotton riding macs absorb water rather than shed it and so become absurdly heavy, hot and uncomfortable and smell when wet. Also the style is practically non-existent from the fashion point of view.
Lightweight PVC coats that are in some shops are often found with welded seams and keep out the rain. The trouble is that one tends to look like a gift wrapped parcel and all are cheaply made and badly cut from just three patterns – small, medium and large. They also hold in the heat and become a sauna if the sun comes out albeit very briefly. Worst of all is that they collect crush marks that are almost impossible to remove. They are also difficult to clean and they tear so easily.
I cannot, of course, guarantee that the soft, loose raincoats I saw in France were absolutely waterproof as the seams were not taped. Most were lined and some seem to have been sealed along the seams with a glue (latex?) but I believe they would do better in a storm than anything else I have seen currently in the shops. The coats are so smart though that I doubt if the wearer is going to complain about a little moisture creeping in. The snag – and it is a snag – is that no one I know – including yours truly – has £95 to spare for a raincoat. Sigh!
I mentioned my enthusiasm for French rubber rainwear to a friend of mine who is involved in what is laughingly called the fashion business by those who don’t know and the suicide business by those who do. He gave me a sad smile and patted my hand. They are not, he explained patiently, made of rubber but one of the new plastics with enough letters in its name to fill two lines of this column. Then he added a phrase which will strike despair into the hearts of every rubber loving male reader: ‘Rubber is not used any more for clothing because it is so difficult and unreliable when it comes to coating it to a fabric. It also gives off a very nasty unpleasant smell when rubber raincoats are displayed in the showrooms of the shops and also when worn.’
My friend’s view was confirmed by a reader, T.C. (see his letter). It seems, too, that rubber is not being used for many of the ladies ‘rubber’ boots that I saw. ‘By 1990,’ said my friend, ‘rubber may only be used for motor and aircraft tyres.’
It seems that the plastics, although derived from oil, are now cheaper to produce than natural rubber, which is labour intensive. There will still be sheet rubber but SBR will no longer be produced. So I am assured.
If you are looking for someone to blame then try Hitler. He had the best German scientists working on methods of making synthetic rubber even before the Second World War. The present product is a direct descendant of that research. (Let me refer you to Robert’s article on the. history of rubber in the forthcoming Rubberist 2.)
My latest discovery is that in France boots of all kinds including waders are now being made from this pseudo rubber and it is so good that no one would want to go back to the tree sap stuff. And it doesn’t smell, say the scientists gleefully. And as a result Dunlop are suffering worse than most from the recession.
Such are the wonders of science, of course, that the smell of over-ripe cheese that I personally so dislike could be provided. Should there be a campaign by members of the Mackintosh Society – ‘put the stink back into rubber’? Or maybe there could be an aerosol scent spray?
Hang on, II think I’m on to something there. How about a rubber pong aftershave or body gel? Have I found a way to wealth at long last since I am making no money as a novelist? Answers please on a postcard.
HELEN V HELEN
May I clear up a small misunderstanding? When the new Skin Two Club opened in Falconberg Court, WC1 (see write-up elsewhere in this issue) it produced some very welcome publicity including a lively, amusing little piece in Punch (Feb 23) written by Michael Bywater. He paid a visit to the Club and gave puzzled approval but – and here I quote –
I am nothing if not broad-minded and in the opposition of leather thigh boots, providing they are not concealing leather thighs, I hold no brief. But mainly it’s the notion of fetishistic women which intrigues. I had previously thought of this sort of laughable stupidity as being the tacky prerogative of my own gender, a view endorsed by the anecdotes of my friend Helen, who, as well as being London’s answer to Xaviera Hollander, is a stately lady of regal bearing and can recognise Couperin’s Trois Lecons de TenBbres through two closed doors (a little kink of mine so mind your own business). Helen has, in the course of a long and distinguished career, seen at close quarters more oddballs than you could throw an eclair at whilst wearing a Pac-aMac and sou’wester and maintains that the great unanswered question is: How did they decide that that was what they liked.
‘A good question and if you can answer it perhaps you’d like to have a go at my income tax as well. My suggestion, for what it’s worth, is that Men Are Just Dirty Beasts On The Whole, but women? I suppose the only way one could find out would be to hang around the powder room at Skin Two and listen to the gossip (a little muffled, of course) as they zip, pop and staple, ply the John Bull repair set and the rubber cement, rub in the neat’s foot oil….’
To my considerable surprise I began to receive a lot of mail following his article. I was accused by total strangers of treachery and malfeasance for it appears that readers seem to think that Bywater’s Helen is myself. She isn’t. May I just say that I don’t care for Couperin and wouldn’t recognise him even in a good light and Xaviera’s habits bear no resemblance whatsoever to mine, even on my bad days. I haven’t been to Skin Two which, since it opens after my bedtime, isn’t likely to get my custom.
I hope that clears up that little matter for D.M.L. of Essex and two dozen others.
|A double breasted raincoat from Mois Macs whom we introduced to readers in our last issue. They are at 85 Harvist Road, London NW6 6HA If you want more details of their products; ring them first on 01-969 5623.|
Little story for you – a true story from a member of a residents’ committee in a select area of the Surrey hills. Local indignation – verging almost on hysteria – had been aroused by a newcomer to the community making various property improvements without consultation with neighbours or benefit of planning consent. The newcomer had been invited to attend their meeting where, it was hinted, a penitent’s stool would be available for use. The newcomer replied that alas a previous engagement prevented him from attending but his wife would plead his case. The residents’ committee instantly saw through this little ruse: he thinks, they muttered, we will be more sympathetic with the female of the species when she begs our forgiveness and trembles in a suitable manner. No, no, they murmured, grease the thumbscrew, warm up the thunderbolts. For the newcomers, the Day of Judgement cometh.
Cometh it did and a packed house skated over the duller trivia like the Minutes, eager to get to the drama. Where, cried the mob, is our sacrifice to the gods of urban security and sanctity? The voices were stilled for, with a timing that would have done credit to any actress, the doors opened and in swept Mrs Newcomer. My informant, whose veracity bis not to be doubted, described her as follows: ‘she was not young but maintained a modestly good figure that was covered from head to toe in shining black leather. She wore high heeled boots that came up almost to her crotch, black leather pants and top, black leather gloves and even sported a black leather cap.’
It was a chic outfit that may not have collected more than one or two passing glances and a few hard stares in Bond Street but in rural Surrey had the effect of a small earthquake. It was the total surprise. The Chairman of the Committee, a fearful individual whose emotions along with his arteries had long been hardened from years of playing the stockmarket, allowed his jaw to fall so far open that it locked depriving him of speech. Mrs Newcomer took advantage of his silence to apologise for being late and enquired, with a smile as demure as a snake at a frog feast, if she might answer any questions on her husband’s behalf? Any possible questions were drowned by the noise of fighting amongst the audience as the male members struggled among themselves to offer Mrs Newcomer a chair whilst the ladies in tweed skirts, twin sets and seed pearls struggled to hold them back. It was the Treasurer who managed to restore order; it was he who smiled at the male applause after announcing that Mrs Newcomer was welcome to consult any of the members of the Committee on any matter of planning and improvement, at any time. In the meantime, she was not to worry for one moment about those obscure planning rules and regulations. He personally would call round one evening and explain the small print.
The moral of this story is that a ruse by any other name is still a ruse. My grannie would have put it differently and said that if you need to go into the glazing business you need never be afraid of using lots and lots of putty.