I stood at the window, doing the dishes and watching the sun set behind the houses. The old lady who lives at the end of the street walked by and smiled at me through the glass; there is no sense of privacy when the footpath runs right outside your kitchen window. Another window looks through the kitchen of my little flat to the bathroom and I panicked a few times, just after I moved in, realising that I was in the bath with a clear view to the street… The bedroom and living room look out onto fields, but they are also visible to the cows, the birds and anyone who happens to be in the gardens either side. When I notice, I still find this odd.
I was raised in Yorkshire, at a time and in a place where everyone had lace curtains. They were important. You could hide a good deal behind net curtains, from the poverty that neither asked nor expected to be helped, to the tragedies and comedies that are played out in every family home. As long as the ‘nets’ were white and the doorstep scrubbed, all was right with the world…at least as far as your public image was concerned. The curtains, often discoloured by coal fires, would be washed with ‘dolly blue’ to counteract the natural fading of the white fabric, or with lemon juice, borax or soda… it didn’t matter, as long as they ended up white.
My own generation grew up and the nets became more of a style feature than a social necessity. Heavy cotton lace gave way to light, synthetic fabrics that allowed more light in, but still preserved privacy…and still needed laundering once a month on principle. I never grew out of that.
As modern housing incorporated more efficient heating and glazing, the windows, and therefore the nets, got bigger and so did the washing of them. Status… according to some unwritten, underlying hangover from an older era, came with having matching nets throughout the house…and although you could suddenly buy coloured nets, if they were white, they had to be properly white.
But for all our new-fangled fabrics and fancy designs, the net curtains still hid the tragedies from public view and kept the sordid secrets of many a family and gave but a hazy view of the outside world. There was a time when the heavy lace curtains served a very real purpose, giving dignity by protecting the poverty they so often hid. When they became a fashion accessory for the home, I wonder if we missed the point somewhere and, instead of preserving dignity, they served only to help us isolate ourselves.
These days, modern decor trends state that, unless you are going for a romantic, country or shabby chic look, net curtains are passé. When I moved in to the new flat, my own net curtains were never going to fit…and they were already passed their best. I didn’t fancy clambering over the sink once a month to launder them and the ‘look’ I was going for was sparse and practical, largely due to the new limitations on space. From what had been a fair-sized family home, I was downsizing to a place just for me, the dog and an aquarium full of inherited fish. Lace curtains were the least of my problems.
Even so, for a good while I felt exposed… vulnerable. That veil between me and the world, I thought, had served me well over the years. Without the nets, not only did I have an unobstructed view of the world, but people could see in. I found this strange and disconcerting, until I got so used to it that I no longer notice until something reminds me.
It has changed a few things though, this living in full view. I now make conscious choices about where I stand in the bathroom, if I should close a door, where I dress or whether to pull the big curtains closed. I choose what I allow the world to see, rather than automatically being hidden behind the nets. It is a subtle but important distinction.
It has made me conscious too of how much, over a lifetime, I have hidden behind my own ‘lace curtains’, presenting a socially acceptable picture to the world regardless of inner turmoil, tragedy or personal distress. That may sometimes be a matter of dignity, but it can also hide a deeper significance.
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