October 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

A Year in High Heels: The Girl's Guide to Everything from Jane Austen to the A-List by Camilla Morton

I enjoy being a girl! I adore being dressed in something frilly, when my date comes to get me at my place. Out I go with my Joe or John or Billy, like a filly who is ready for the race! I feel pretty, oh so pretty, I feel pretty, and witty, and bright! And, thank heaven, for little girls, for little girls get bigger every day.

“Everything” means different things to different people. For physicists, it involves 11-dimensional M-theory and supergravity. In Camilla Morton’s first book, How to Walk in High Heels: The Girl’s Guide to Everything, it turns out that “everything” for girls is less grandiose. We need to know how to have good table manners, how to look like we’ve just stepped out of a salon, how to conquer our technophobia, and how to love our computers. After we buy a house, we need to know how to be a “handy ma’am” (heh) and “how to iron the blues away.” Camilla’s famous, well-born, nepotism-loving friends help us damsels learn to do “everything” -- Stella McCartney instructs us on how to talk to our tailors, Jade Jagger schools us in how to compile our own soundtrack, and Gisele Budchen tells us how to look good in a photo, to our enduring gratitude. Apparently men, gay and straight alike, can advise girls on things like how to pick shoes and hats, but men or boys don’t need to read this guide to everything. Maybe they’re too busy running countries or studying string theory or something.

Morton’s latest book, A Year in High Heels: The Girl’s Guide to the Seasons, is, according to Vogue, “The must-have guide to year-round fabulousness!” It’s “just what every modern girl needs” (Glamour UK), “the perfect book for every aspiring fabulous girl in the world” (J-Lo) and “you’ll wonder how you ever survived without it” (InStyle UK). “If you’re already feeling deflated now the Sex and the City hype has died down and we're still two months away from show season, treat yourself to a copy!” (Vogue UK) When it arrived, I immediately looked up Morton on Google Images. She’s a bleached-blond Bridget Jones type, lipsticked and grinning with a bowtied Manolo Blahnik at NewYork Fashion Week. I can’t find anything online about her parentage. Why do I suspect she’s not exactly self-made? If I read this book, do I get to be fabulous, whizzing between book signings and galas in an oh-so-chic ensemble? Will I stop obsessing about poverty, rape, imperialism, Darfur, the homelessness in my own city and the fact that the average age of entry into prostitution in the United States is thirteen? You know what, sign me up. Give me some frilly, froufrou escapism. If I look like Kate Moss afterwards, so much the better.

The chapter for each month opens with a “wish you were here” letter from someone chic about how fabulous it is in their current city or vacation spot. In February, Bella Freud tries on clothes in Paris to go with her new Christian Louboutin boots, and then meets Christian to bid on furniture at an auction house. What next? How about macrobiotic food, a high-end facial and more shopping? In July, Matthew Williamson enjoys lounging on his houseboat in Kerala, reading British books about seeing India “off the beaten path.” In May, Giorgio Armani hangs out in San Tropez, where he normally spends time in the house he owns, but sometimes he stays on the yacht he owns. Then, there’s a Page-Turner to read with your book of the month club, a Muse of the Month to emulate, some instructions, lots of seemingly random trivia by the date (Howard Hughes’ death, Caesar’s murder, Wordsworth’s birth, the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the 1985 Live Aid “Global Jukebox” concert, Hemingway’s birth, the start of the French Revolution, Rosh Hashanah, the Salem Witch Trials and the coronation of James I. Huh?) Every chapter concludes with a “foot note” about a different kind of shoe.

The book’s layout is irritatingly haphazard, but maybe that’s part of the chic, fabulous, whirlwind life of a girl. Some of the instructions are fun and lovely. Make a hot toddy in January? Sounds very cozy. Read Sleeping Beauty in honor of Jacob Grimm’s birthday? Count me in. Have “festival chic” and customize my T-shirt for Glastonbury or Glyndebourne? Yes, please.  Others are deeply depressing. Do I really need a guide to blogging, podcasting, or writing and deciphering Internet personals? Ew. Why is that chic or fabulous? It would be great if everything in the book was seasonal, and every almanac-ish factoid came with a girlish activity (a few do, the rest don’t), and she didn’t randomly skip days, and there was some meaning to what was included, and the whole thing wasn’t so, well, messy. Then again, maybe the problem is me. Maybe I just need to embrace the frothy, eccentric spirit of year-round girlhood.

I’m grousing, but A Year in High Heels is more fun and less cloying than the average girl magazine. The background on each Page-Turner and Muse is witty and engaging, and the choices are delightfully odd. It’s here that Morton’s socialite frivolity pays off -- who wouldn’t want to read Robert Evans’s The Kid Stays in the Picture at The Ivy in March, then have high tea at a country inn in Dorset while reading Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes in April? If some of the Muse of the Month choices are predictable (Audrey Hepburn, Jackie O), others are offbeat, like Peggy Guggenheim for October and Cinderella for December. Best of all, Morton may be a bit unwittingly smug and precious about all her Brit-girl frolicking and gallivanting, but she’s never trendy. She never asks her girl-readers to use Madonna or Halle Barry as a Muse of the Month, or read Eat, Pray, Love and The Year of Magical Thinking, or do anything else that would make me throw up a little in my mouth. When she refers to “getting the Simpson look,” she means Wallis. 

And, some of the instruction guides from Morton’s famous friends are tasty little surprises. “How to have a midsummer’s night picnic” by Michael Howells, set designer, utterly seduced me. I had no idea that I needed to do this, but now I’m convinced that nobody does it better than this man. If I hadn’t been tossing violets into my salads and serving “elderflower water, pink champagne, and roses as well as delicate sandwiches, jellies, fairy cakes and fairy food” to my guests on willow-print and chipped porcelain plates on an enchanted isle in the middle of a beautiful lake in a secret place somewhere “very English, rural and magical,” with cushions to sit on and Chinese Lanterns in the trees and lining the paths, it was only out of ignorance. It can’t hurt to learn how to walk the red carpet artfully from Sophie Dahl, and I think I’ve already mentioned that I plan to use Lady Amanda Harlech’s tips for styling my T-shirt for Glastonbury. Some of these people really are chic and fabulous, I must admit.
“Having money is rather like being a blond,” said Mary Quant (quoted for November, month of Jackie O and the sneaker). “It’s more fun but it’s not vital.” Then there’s a letter from Diane Von Furstenberg, who lives in my New York neighborhood, gets “electric facials” every week and, to her great credit, “pushes East” to eat at Katz’s Deli (or maybe just to stare at the salamis with saucer-sized eyes while driving a fork into her hand under the table, a la Laclos’s Marquise de Merteuil.) Then there’s a guide to shopping for diamonds, that doesn’t mention how to find ones that aren’t connected to bloody massacres in distant lands. Then, after some background on the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s Tomb in Luxor, the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot and The Sound of Music opening on Broadway (huh?), there are guides to dealing with moths, letter-writing and cooking a turkey.  

In my opinion, a girl, like a physicist, should strike a balance between the fun and the vital. A Year in High Heels doesn’t quite deliver enough of either. But maybe chic, fabulous girls will trot on through the thing like racing fillies, and happily hit the good parts, and be able to ignore how weird and meaningless all the other bits are -- after all, these girls are en route to Crufts Dog Show and the Royal Ascot and, in July, the Parrish Art Museum Mid-Summer Gala in the Hamptons. (See “How to do the seasons,” June.) All that antique shopping and polo-watching and killing of pheasants and foxes and stags probably keeps them from straining their pretty little heads.

A Year in High Heels: The Girl's Guide to Everything from Jane Austen to the A-List by Camilla Morton
Harper Paperbacks
ISBN: 0061673609
544 Pages