Friday, May 22, 2009

The Pavlova again

A small but intriguing coda to my exhaustive researches into the question of the origins of the canonical pavlova, New Zealand’s premier cultural export, has last evening emerged from a close reading of Australian Newspapers beta.

Coinciding with the first of Anna Matveyevna Pavlova’s two sensational Australian tours for J. C. Williamson, in 1926 the Melbourne retailers, led by Georges, hitched their caboose to the prima ballerina’s publicity locomotive. In an advertisement for their winter sale that appeared in the
Argus on May 19 (p. 15), it was noted that suits and frocks came in “jade, wine, cocoa, Pavlova, bois de rose, and cinnamon.”

With characteristic competitiveness Myer’s chimed in on June 12 (p. 9) with Saxony frocking in “bracken, bois de rose, Pavlova, almond, bottle, palm green, and parma violet”; bordered frockings in “Sahara, bracken, amethyst, Pavlova, palm green, nut brown, bottle, bois de rose, nigger, and rust”; and English velours in “wine, Burgundy, plum, Pavlova, saxe, Princess blue, bottle, navy, and black.” 

At around this date the ugly term “nigger” was also applied to the color of shoes and gloves sold by Debenham and Freebody in London, but that is, of course, irrelevant. What is so interesting, however, is that among the more conventional prompts, one finds here (so insistently capitalized) a loud tribute to the ballerina exclusively in terms of color, as well as, of course, a deep bow to the arrival on April 21 of Princess Elizabeth of York, a powerful reminder that The Queen was hugely famous from birth.

Gradually filtering “down,” on June 22 we find the following advertisement placed by the Charles M. Read Stores of Chapel Street, Prahran, for their winter sale, (“having purchased the entire stocks of Messrs. Wallace and Shorter Pty. Ltd., in voluntary liquidation, from Messrs. Wilson, Rattray and Danby, Public Accountants, 41 Queen Street”), namely a “Wholesale Slaughter of Woollen Dress Goods” consisting of Kasha suitings “in diagonal stripe effects of Pavlova, Dutch blue, bottle, russet, and new red,” and tubular Jersey cloth in “rose, rosewood, santal, bois de rose, Pavlova, deep mauve, cinnamon, cocoa, rose, beige, mole, grey, new green, Persian, beaum (wine) [sic: beaune], spring, vert de gris (two shades), Elizabeth blue, sky, light tan, wine, full brown, navy, also black and cream.” 

Among Melbourne retailers it seems only Read’s of Chapel Street gamely persisted in this vein. On September 20 (p. 15) their after-stocktaking sale featured French colored chiffon taffeta in “pervanche [sic: pervenche, i.e. periwinkle blue], bois de rose, plum, navy, white, brown, raisin, champagne, wine, mulberry, nattier, vieux rose saxe, rose, beige, chardron, parma, Pavlova, cocoa, and black”; inch crepe de chine in “santal, rosewood, rose, beige, chardron, cocoa, parma, mulberry, burgundy, Pavlova, mauve, bois de rose, vert de gris, navy; also ivory and black”; all-wool Jersey frocks in “saxe, reseda, nude, putty, Pavlova, wine, bottle, fuchsia, and fawn,” and all-wool Jersey jumpers in “red, reseda, jade, bois de rose, cardinal, saxe, fawn, putty, grey, and Pavlova.” 

Read’s of Chapel Street were still pursuing the same strategy in the Argus on January 6, 1927 (p. 11), where the full-page advertisement for their bumper annual half-yearly sale was headed “Silks at Remarkable Sale Prices”:
French crepe de chine, 6/11 Yd. 38–40 in. wide French Crepe de Chine, a good heavy weight All-silk Cloth, in shades of helio[trope]., grey, nigger, salmon, petunia, vert de gris, lettuce, lemon, Pavlova, apricot, champagne, burgundy, fuchsia, reseda. Usual price 10/13; SALE PRICE, 6/11 yard.
It is hard to reconstruct with any degree of precision the color of “Pavlova,” except by a tedious process of elimination. However, I earnestly hope that an answer may yet reside in the vast body of critical comment that accompanied the ballerina’s Australian engagements. Certainly it was not ivory, white, or any other vaguely predictable (or even unpredictable) color that one might readily associate with an on-stage prima ballerina, nor by the insistent jostling around Pavlova (the color) of various pinks, mauves, greens and pale blues does Pavlova appear to stray in any of those directions. We may well be dealing with some sort of rich gold or warm, sunny, buttery yellow.

In any case this hitherto forgotten meaning of “Pavlova” is yet to make it into the Australian National Dictionary, nor even the Oxford English Dictionary and I must speak to the editors about that careless omission. The fact that the color of Pavlova has since vanished into the ether of forgotten fashion (only to be supplanted by a meringue “cake” with New Zealand provenance) goes some distance towards explaining why it is not there, however we must as a nation aim for complete coverage of our linguistic heritage.

Of course, there is the issue of letting sleeping dogs lie, because once you start down this path only insanity awaits, because inevitable questions arise as to what on earth chardron, nattier, parma, and Sahara actually looked like. “Saxe” clearly relates to Dresden china, which, given their broad palette does not help very much, but at least we may assume “bottle” was green.

1 comment:

  1. I adore pavlova, as in the luscious meringue dessert accompanied by a sweet sauce of stewed berries. It seems that the meanings associated wiht this word abound.

    xxo HH