Book Simple: The Custom of L.A.
a life-in-books by Amy Brown
People on the west coast don’t wear cocktail dresses. This is a lesson I learned early in my tenure in Los Angeles, walking into Bar Nineteen 12 at the Beverly Hills Hotel. My Pasadena-raised friend Tracy was with me, dressed immaculately as ever in skinny jeans and charming print top. But to my east coast-raised mind, going out to a bar, going out at all, meant wearing a dress.
Tracy had tried to help me; “You’re awfully dressed up,” she’d say on various occasions. “I’m just wearing black,” I’d think and quietly ignore that everyone else wore color, and jeans, and jewelry of an entirely different stripe. But usually these were graduate student occasions, and standing out in a crowd of graduate students feels rather like dressing appropriately.
Venturing into the hotel bar that evening was my first exercise in Los Angeles adult society. I’d always looked appropriate in Boston, in LBD and heels, wearing the pearls that Wellesley girls sport at every occasion. But that evening as I walked in, it felt as though the entire room stopped to gawk at me, so entirely was I out of place.
Looking back at this now, the reaction seems more ordinary. In LA, someone who’s dressed oddly is likely a celebrity, so the bar patrons needed to check and make sure I wasn’t one. But at the time, I felt more stodgy and matronly than I could believe; I might as well have worn my hair up in a bun with a pince-nez to make the picture of dowdy womanhood complete.
It was this memory that came to me as I was reading The Custom of the Country on my vacation in Mexico this week. Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel describes the social ascent of one Undine Spragg, the beautiful, ambitious daughter of a western speculator. She lands with her parents in a hotel in New York: “Undine had early decided that they could not hope to get on while they ‘kept house’ – all the fashionable people she knew either boarded or lived in hotels.”
Undine is a more careful observer than I was; her “careful imagination had been nurtured on the feats and gestures of Fifth Avenue. She knew all of New York’s golden aristocracy by name, and the lineaments of its most distinguished scions had been made familiar by passionate poring over the daily press.” The wardrobe she collects is edited for the slightest vagaries of fashion, and her beauty eventually attracts the attention of Ralph Marvell, the heir to the Dagonet clan.
Taken up by this ancient family, who “won’t know” and despise the nouveaux riches Driscolls and Van Degens whose friendship Undine sought in vain, she feels as though “there were going to be no mistakes and no more follies now! She was going to know the right people at last – she was going to get what she wanted!” Her splendid marriage to Ralph should be her crowning success.
Alas, our social climber discovers that the old money of New York sparkles less than the new. “Some of those whom Washington Square left unvisited were the centre of social systems far outside its ken, and as indifferent to its opinions as the constellations to the reckonings of the astronomers; and all these systems joyously revolved around their central sun of gold.” Disenchanted by her fashionable poverty, Undine refuses to comprehend the marriage’s precarious finances. In doing so, she destroys Ralph Marvell, and the reader discovers that Undine will sacrifice everything – marriage, child, country, pride and family history – to the inexhaustible maw of her ambition.
It’s rather a cautionary tale. Undine Spragg made me quite willing to be dowdy forever if by so doing I could avoid succumbing to her cruel veniality. So in her honor, I’m tamping down my vanity while on vacation. Despite the “custom of the country” here at the resort, I will be sporting neither a tie-dyed poncho over my swimsuit nor an embroidered sun visor.