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When I was designing my linen cupboard, at the back of my mind I was thinking, “What if Miss Havisham had been French and had settled down in life, with her second choice, in her late twenties?” I was also half thinking of Edward Rosier, the unfortunate suitor to Pansy Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, whose priceless collection of old lace and other knick-knacks is referred to throughout the novel as his bibelots. If I told you my linen cupboard was lined with pale grey wallpaper printed with images of 18th-century wedding veils punctuated by garlands of pink roses and green leaves, you might not be wholly surprised.
The allure of the linen cupboard runs deep, with its nods both to the convent and the trousseau, the seaside boarding house and the stately home. These are private places, which ought to brim with hygiene and nostalgia; they are unheard boasts, seldom even shown to friends.
Visiting teens may walk into your kitchen and pull open the fridge door for ideas but few, I think, nip upstairs to count the sheets. Revealing much about the nature of the household, its routines as well and aspirations, linen cupboards are more personal, even, than underwear drawers. They are rehearsal spaces of order and plenty, backstage life, preparation zones. They can be small museums packed with family history, where the best things may not have been used for years. Did those silky-with-age white paisley napkins belong to the grandmother you passed once on the stairs? Look at that baby bonnet with its Napoleonic tassel! Will your best tablecloth make it to your children’s middle age? Will you? Will they have tables then?
For me linen cupboards contain outmoded ideas of womanhood that are awfully hard to throw over. The very best examples, I suspect, are curated by experienced maids. I grew up with a mother who made a living selling old clothes and linen and lace, which I spent quite a bit of my childhood helping to mend and launder. If my linen cupboard were in a bad state it would probably mean I was in need of hospitalisation.
Old linens are exerting their influence in all sorts of ways at the moment; crisp cotton lawn cloth, lace inserts, hemstitch details, crocheted trims and dotted swiss voiles are everywhere I go. These garments relating to bedclothes and other household items have a tender humility to them, an emotional edge that also has dignity. They can feel almost holy in flavour, but the lightness of the material makes them festive and carefree. They can seem like an honest reproach to more worldly, elaborate styles. Think how much more attractive the toiles made of simple ivory calico in Phantom Thread were compared to all those hideous plum-coloured gowns.
I often think the nicest summer clothes suggest you’ve stood up too fast, taking the tablecloth with you. The scalloped-edge Lumino Daisy dress, by Zimmermann (£465, mytheresa), looks as though it’s made from heirloom pillow slips. Some of the brand’s swimsuits and bikinis have doily-style lace trims. Their broderie anglaise blouses may be made from three different kinds of lace, but they are simple in appearance. They make me think of beautiful lampshades.
These immaculate, luxurious high summer garments still manage to carry a small clever shrug of “Oh, this old thing?” These are clothes that would be perfect to wear to watch the remake of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Likewise, at JW Anderson for Spring/Summer 2018, there were wide-leg sailor trousers, asymmetric dresses and knee-length shorts made out of tea-towel material with the designer’s name, instead of “glass cloth”, printed in a stripe above the hem. I often tuck an actual glass cloth into my waistband when I am cooking and sometimes think it improves my look. The dress would be wonderful for tennis, if you wanted to create a stir on court.
If you are a purist, or like to look as though you’re in a Singer Sargent painting, the patch of market where Cambridge Gardens meets Portobello Road, on Fridays, has lots of genuinely old white blouses and nightdresses. A knee-length, sleeveless, cotton lawn Victorian nightie can feel fresh over swimwear on the beach on a boiling day. A fancy 1910 white lace dress, still fairly resilient, made me smile this morning and cost £110. It would need to be worn with a bit of a scowl, and nowhere near a piano, but that’s not hard to arrange.
Linens aren’t only for summer either. For Fendi’s Autumn/Winter collection, Karl Lagerfeld sent out sophisticated white dresses with a fairytale, folkloric quality, both ethereal and Mitteleuropean in appearance, inspired by embroidered handkerchiefs. Lagerfeld himself has a large collection of antique linens and sleeps in daily laundered sheets. “It’s my greatest joy in life each evening to get into my bed,” he told this paper.
These dresses make me think of the scene in the Milly-Molly-Mandy books where her mother, grandmother and aunt raid their bottom drawers for handkerchiefs to fashion MMM her first party frock. Should a good linen cupboard possess the makings of an impromptu gown? It’s not a bad idea.
There are all sorts of scents to accompany these linen cupboard fashions. Its makers claim Maison Margiela Replica Lazy Sunday Morning (£95) conjures “crumpled linen sheets and the reassuring scent of fresh laundry”. The Library of Fragrance Fresh Laundry (£15) smells as its name suggests. Byredo Cotton Poplin (£85) promises memories of “a warm cup of tea on a brisk morning” and “freshly washed sheets drying on the clothesline in the midday sun”. (Warning: these scents might just make you impulse-buy a double damask chrysanthemum-weave banqueting cloth.)
There’s the thrill of perfectly laundered linen, of course, and then there’s obsession with cleanliness. I had a punk friend once who used to wear Dettol as perfume. Greeting him sometimes brought tears to the eye. Whether people will start applying spray starch to their pulse points remains to be seen, but the joy of crisp white clothing on a hot day cannot be denied. Better still, why not stay in bed?
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