With Chanel and Hippies, “The Razor’s Edge” Defined “Chic”
The author W. Somerset Maugham saw chic as a quality that graces you, and when it does, it’s best not to pay it too much attention.
Bill Murray (I know!!!) and Theresa Russell in the 1984 film adaptation of The Razor’s Edge. Photograph via Getty Images.
Clothes Before Prose is a column that explores the use of fashion in some of our favorite novels. This week: a journey through Chanel and hippie style in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.
The word “chic” suggests expense and taste, it doesn’t significantly up your character count, and it’s vague enough to be applicable to everything from winter coats to designer scaffolding.
Paris is chic, obviously. Life-size Lego furniture is “actually kinda” chic. Even elastic waist pants can be chic.
I am an avid consumer of lifestyle, the literature of which heartily employs the term, so imagine my surprise when I read the word used as an noun for the first time. I didn’t know that was possible, but there it was exactly fifty pages into W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge. The book’s resident snob, Elliott Templeton, has outfitted his visiting niece Isabel Bradley in couture he’s chosen for her on the occasion of a dinner he is hosting. After the meal is over, Elliott cannot help but ask the forty-year-old Madame de Florimond, “who combined irreproachable connections with notorious immorality,” as Maugham (himself the narrator) explains, whether she likes Isabel’s new dress.
“It’s pretty and it’s suitable. But of course she has no chic,” his dinner guest replies. Templeton is furious. “One has to have reached your ripe maturity to have your chic, dear friend,” he responds, barely concealing the barb with a smile. But it’s not just the well-titled who are capable of having chic. At one point in the novel, Isabel meets “the smartest kept woman in Paris,” whose “wonderful chic” she admires.
The word has always frustrated me for its imprecision, but the noun form appeals; while it’s still vague, it suggests chic is something you can at least grasp. It’s something to have. Maugham captures the tiniest details of social class, down to the “champagne colored stockings,” but it isn’t so much a book of subtleties as it is one of seeking.
The young (chic-less) Isabel, of Chicago, is engaged to one Larry Darrell. They’re happy and in love, except for one thing. Larry doesn’t want to get a job; instead, he plans to “loaf.” He is frustratingly unclear about his intentions, but he’s hell-bent on finding whatever it is he’s looking for. Isabel, on the other hand, desires nothing more than a conventional upper-class life. Then there’s Gray Maturin, a millionaire’s son who’s desperately in love with Isabel and wants nothing more than to marry her, though he happens to be too good a guy to try and steal her outright from Larry. Elliott, for his part, is an American obsessed with the European upper crust; he spends the entire book (and his life), climbing the ranks of social calls and small slights.
The book’s opening salvo includes the disclaimer, “If I call it a novel it is only because I don’t know what else to call it.” Really, he writes, it’s a thinly veiled true story. Maugham sees the novel’s subjects on and off for years, filling in backstory when he can. The Paris visit comes two years after Larry has left for the City of Light to loaf in peace and find some answers. He has thus far refused to be put in good company despite Elliott’s offers, and mostly spends his time reading philosophy at the library. Isabel and her mother arrive to find out if Larry is done with his quest and ready to come back to Chicago, get a job, and finally get married.
But first, they must be dressed properly for Paris society. “It would mortify me that you shouldn’t be perfectly dressed,” Elliott says to his sister. “On mature consideration I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t do better than Chanel.” Once properly outfitted, Elliott shows off (and shows off for) his sister and niece. That’s when Madame de Florimond offers her proclamation on Isabel’s (lack of) chic.
After spending lots of time together, Isabel finally decides to ask Larry if he’s done with all his seeking. In short order, the answer is no. “I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not,” Larry explains. “I want to find out why evil exists. I want to know whether I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it’s the end.” She’s not remotely convinced by his grand philosophical ambitions. “It all sounds so adolescent to me,” she says. “Those are the sort of things sophomores get excited about and then when they leave college they forget about them. They have to earn a living.”
Larry often says the sort of things I recall hearing from white, male classmates who studied abroad in Asia or Africa and came back to our New England college campus in their newly acquired pants made in muted colors and natural fibers. Said pants hung loose in two great swaths of fabric or ballooned from waist to ankle, where they cinched again. The pants vaguely resembled pajamas, and the boys looked definitely like dum-dums. “If I ever acquire wisdom I suppose I shall be wise enough to know what to do with it,” Larry explains to Isabel; the pajama boys, as I took to referring to them, insisted they’d found enlightenment via a homestay and a bout of food poisoning. While they share a self-seriousness, it’s worth noting that unlike my college contemporaries, Larry fought in WWI and returned with what today might be called post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing a friend’s death.
Instead of going back to the US, Larry wants to marry Isabel on the continent, right away, and have her join him on his bohemian journey. “You don’t know what you’re asking me to do,” she says, offering a list of all the things she wants to do instead, which include parties, dances, playing golf, riding horses, and dressing well. The life he’s offering, full of “a lot of scrubby, unwashed people” and having to make do on his small war pension, doesn’t appeal. “You know, it isn’t really like that,” Larry says. “One can dress very nicely without going to Chanel.” The interesting people, as he sees it, don’t live in the neighborhoods she frequents with her uncle.
Their exchange continues:
“Don’t be stupid, Larry. Of course I would [like to hang out with your circle and drink wine that’s not up to snuff]. You know I’m not a snob. I’d love to meet interesting people.”
“Yes, in a Chanel dress. D’you think they wouldn’t catch on to it that you looked upon it as a sort of cultured slumming? They wouldn’t be at their ease, any more than you would, and you wouldn’t get anything out of it except to tell Emily de Montadour and Gracie de Château-Gaillard afterward what fun you’d had meeting a lot of weird bohemians in the Latin Quarter.”
This is the sharpest retort that the generally affable Larry makes in the entire book. At odds and unwilling to compromise, the young couple call off their engagement. Isabel returns to Chicago with her Chanel, lack of chic, and conventional dreams.
It is a decade before she sees Maugham again. When they’d first met, in Chicago, she was a chubby beauty in white silk. This time, she wears black. “At a glance I noticed that her silk dress, neither too plain nor too fancy, had been made by one of the best dressmakers in Paris, and she wore it with the careless confidence of a woman to whom it is second nature to wear expensive clothes,” he writes.
A lot has changed, stylistically and otherwise. Isabel married Gray, who became richer and richer. They went to the parties, wore the expensive things, and rode the horses. “Ten years before, even with Elliott to advise, her frocks had been somewhat on the showy side and she had worn them as though she were not quite at home in them,” Maugham explains. “Marie Louise de Florimond could not have said now that she lacked chic. She had chic to the tips of her rose-painted nails.”
“On mature consideration I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t do better than Chanel.”
It’s not just that Isabel has the right haircut, but that she knows the right salon to go to. Still, getting a good bob and wearing the right designer doesn’t guarantee chic. To have chic you can’t desperately be trying to have chic. Chic comes to you, it seems, and when it bestows itself on you, it’s best not to pay it too much attention. The way Isabel moves her hands and carries herself has “a look of perfect spontaneity,” even though Maugham concedes that her entire self-presentation is likely “a work of conscious art that had been years in the making.” Though chic is supposed to be effortless, not hard won, Maugham realizes it does take a lot of work. Isabel’s dewy complexion is “obviously owed something now to lotions, creams, and massage,” but still, he’s swayed by the beauty of her perfect skin. Isabel has made it all seem easy, and therefore intuitive, down to the way she wears her dress with that “careless confidence.”
But there are no rings on her fingers nor pearls around her neck. The Great Depression had taken Gray’s business, their home, and even Isabel’s jewels, which were sold off. Luckily, increasingly wealthy Elliott, largely unaffected by the downturn, offers to put up Isabel and Gray in Paris, where they re-encounter Larry for the first time in years.
Larry has hardly any money, but in India, he’s gained some answers and an ailment-curing hypnotism skill set. He is what J.M. Coetzee later called a “proto-hippie.” Maugham is intrigued by Larry’s journey; Gray is grateful after Larry cures his migraines. Isabel still loves Larry and is driven nearly to madness by the sight of his wrist hair dappled in sunlight. “I have never seen on a human countenance such a hungry concupiscence as I saw then on hers,” Maugham writes.
Isabel won’t leave Gray, but she will drive away the woman Larry becomes engaged to. Then Elliott, who has become increasingly devastated by the changing social scene in Europe, dies. “Believe me, my dear fellow, there’ll be none of this damned equality in heaven,” he says, during his final days. The money Isabel inherits is enough for Gray to start a new business, and so, they plan to return to America. Just before she does, Larry disappears again, with his own loose plans to go to America, this time to drive a taxi while practicing “calmness, forbearance, compassion, selflessness and continence.”
He’s left no forwarding address and the chances that they’ll encounter one another socially are slim to none. While Isabel knows that she never could have lived the life Larry wanted for them and is also relatively happy with Gray, she’s still devastated to learn that she’s lost Larry again. But she will have a new closet to fill, parties to go to, and people to see. And then, of course, she’ll still have her chic. Perhaps that’s something to have and to hold when she wishes, instead, for Larry.