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I found this description of the character Meg Elginbrodde in Margery Allingham's The Tiger in the Smoke:

A swathe of flax-white hair protruded from a twist of felt, and underneath was something not quite true. Exquisite bone hid under delicate faintly painted flesh, each tone subtly emphasising and leading up to the wide eyes, lighter than Scandinavian blue and deeper than Saxon grey.

Is a "twist of felt" a kind of a hair accessory? And does "each tone" refer to her shades of skin color?

2 Answers 2

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“Twist of felt” in this context means “a small felt hat”, one so small that (rhetorically speaking) it resembles a “twist”, in the sense “a cord, thread, or the like, formed by twisting, spinning, or plaiting” (OED). The rhetorical figure is meiosis, “by which something is intentionally presented as smaller than it really is” (OED).

The Tiger in the Smoke is set in the early 1950s, so perhaps Miss Elginbrodde’s hat resembled the ones in this advertisement from 1952:

Pen-and-ink drawing of the heads and shoulders of two models, each wearing a “clamp cap”, a stiff black strip of fabric gripping the sides of the head and extending over the top. In each case the cap is attached to a veil of netting that shades the upper part of the face.

the clamp cap…an artful twist of felt or velvet, standing pat on your pretty head…with beguiling matching veil…black, brown, navy felt or velvet...felt also in white, or beige or grey tweed…8.95

Advertisement for Bullocks Willshire. In The Los Angeles Times, 6 June 1952, p. 24.

Here are two other twentieth-century novels using “twist” to describe a small hat.

Taking off her hat, a jaunty twist of black velvet from Paris, Gabriella went into her bedroom and changed to a gown of clear blue crape, which she took out of the new bag.

Ellen Glasgow (1916). Life and Gabriella, p. 405. London: John Murray.

“You don’t think it’s too much of a sports hat?” She was thinking of the little twist of velvet with its jeweled pin that Mrs. Ficke had worn.

Nelia Gardner White (1948). No Trumpet Before Him, p. 99. Chicago: Peoples Book Club.

As for “each tone”, you are right that this refers to shades of colour. These shades are cosmetic and not the character’s real skin tones, as indicated by the descriptions “not quite true”, “hid”, and “faintly painted”.

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  • Interesting. I honestly think it can be read both ways. "Underneath" suggests a hat, while "leading up" suggests a collar.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 13:45
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    Re-reading the passage though, @MattThrower, it's not the hair nor the twist of felt that do the "leading up", but instead the "delicate faintly painted flesh".
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 19:10
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It may be helpful to quote the whole paragraph which contains the OPs query, for context.

She did not reply at once and he glanced at her sharply, accepting the pain it gave him. She was so lovely. Queen Nefertiti in a Dior ensemble. Her clothes seemed a part of her. Her plum-coloured redingote with its absurd collar arched like a sail emphasised her slenderness. Since it was fashionable to do so, she looked bendable, bone and muscle fluid like a cat’s. A swathe of flax-white hair protruded from a twist of felt, and underneath was something not quite true. Exquisite bone hid under delicate faintly painted flesh, each tone subtly emphasising and leading up to the wide eyes, lighter than Scandinavian blue and deeper than Saxon grey. She had a short fine nose and a wide softly painted mouth, quite unreal, one might have thought, until she spoke. She had a husky voice, also fashionable, but her intonation was alive and ingenuous. Even before one heard the words one realised, albeit with surprise, that she was both honest and not very old.

This, then, is a descriptive paragraph concerning one of the characters.

In context, we can intuit that the "twist of felt" is part of that character's clothing, which has been described in some detail. In particular, it's the

plum-coloured redingote with its absurd collar

The term redingote is unfamiliar, but according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary it can denote several different items of clothing, the most relevant of which is:

a woman's lightweight coat open at the front

The "twist" is thus the collar of this garment, a light coat made of felt, which will be folded over to create the collar. We can intuit it is the collar by what comes next, which is clearly a description of the gaze following up the woman's neck to her "wide eyes". By extension, the "swathe of flax-white hair" must therefore be the woman's hair, tucked into the collar of the coat.

"Each tone" refers not to the skin colour but that of her make-up. We know this not only because someone's skin tone does not tend to vary, but because it's directly after the reference to "delicate faintly painted flesh" which is suggestive of carefully applied cosmetics.

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  • In your theory where the "twist of felt" refers to the collar of the redingote, how does the character's "flax-white hair" protrude from it? It would help if you could include an illustration of the hairstyle that you are imagining. Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 13:29
  • @GarethRees the hair is tucked into the collar. I'll add this is. It's a good observation as that aspect gave me pause for thought, but when you read on it's very clear that the description is rising up a neckline into the face, so tucked-in hair seems the only logical explanation.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 13:32
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    Maybe an "absurd collar arched like a sail" could mean an extremely tall collar that somehow covers part of the hair? Can you find any pictures of such collars?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 13:55
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    Just an extra data-point, when I lived in England the hat-shop near my house was actually called "A Twist of Felt". I do feel that the phrase is more associated with a hat than a coat collar. Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 16:37
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    An interesting theory, but I see some flaws. The "rising gaze" breaks down with a U-turn from the eyes to the mouth, as well as the interruption of the "bendable" sentence. "Protruding" hair implies the ends are sticking out, which works with a hat but not a collar. The painted skin is under the protruding hair, which means either she has collarbone makeup or the hair is protruding down over the face. As an aside, the "swathe of flax" is a clever agricultural metaphor, since flax (the crop) is harvested by swathing. Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 20:53

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