Party Frock was first published in 1946. The US edition
(1947) was entitled Party Shoes. It is now available in
the UK as Party Shoes, but is out of print in the US.
Story | Connections
to Other Books | Background
| Thoughts | Editions
The Second World War is drawing to a close. Selina Cole, who
had previously lived in Hong Kong with her parents, has been staying
for over five years with relatives - Uncle Jim (a doctor), Aunt
Ann, and their children John, Christopher, Sally, Phoebe, Augustus
and Benjamin. Unexpectedly, Selina's godmother in America sends
her a present - a party frock and shoes. It is Selina's first
long party dress, but there are no opportunities to wear it in
an English village at the end of a long war. The children try
to think of a way she will be able to wear it, and decide to perform
an historical pageant for charity. Selina is to wear her dress,
and present the prologue and epilogue for the pageant.
John, Christopher, Sally and Phoebe are each to write a scene,
and to include parts for Augustus and Benjamin. Because the pageant
is to be performed in the grounds of the Abbey (once a real Abbey,
but now a private residence) John decides to set his scene in
Medieval times. He will play a boy who has been studying with
the monks, and whose father takes him away to fight in a war.
Phoebe writes a scene starring herself as the young Anne Boleyn.
Sally, a promising ballet dancer, decides to have a dance performed
by children for the visiting Queen Elizabeth I, and Christopher,
who fancies himself as a comedian, chooses a seventeenth century
setting with a group of mummers (himself as a humorous devil)
performing in the village.
Sally is the first of the children to stage a rehearsal in the
Abbey grounds. Squadron Leader Philip Day, the nephew of the current
owners of the Abbey, who is staying there while he recuperates
from an aeroplane crash, sees the rehearsal. Before the war, Philip
had been involved with professional theatre, and he offers to
help Sally - and the other children - with the production. With
his support the pageant grows and grows, until most of the villagers
are involved in some way.
Connections to Other
There do not appear to be any connections between Party Frock/Party
Shoes and other Noel Streatfeild books. (It has no connections to the other "shoes" books.)
The background to Party Frock is recounted by Noel in
her introduction ("A Letter to the Reader of this Book"):
During the war my niece, Nicolette, was given
a party frock and shoes from America. A lovely frock of the
sort that nobody had because of clothes rationing. Blue organdie
over a silk slip. It was Nicolette's first long frock and she
could hardly wait for the right occasion to put it on. But [because
of the war] no occasion turned up. ... I am glad to say that
Nicolette did wear the frock. If it was a bit tight it did not
show. She looked exactly as somebody of thirteen ought to look
at a party. But I remember the months of anxiety when the frock
hung in the cupboard. How awful to have been Nicolette. How
many more girls had party frocks and shoes sent them from abroad
and no party? So, for Nicolette in England, and the givers of
the party frock and shoes in America, I wrote this book. (Party
(This section contains "spoilers" for those who have
not read the book.)
The wartime setting is vital to the plot of Party Frock.
However, just as Curtain Up
gave a slightly different perspective on wartime life from The
Children of Primrose Lane, so Party Frock is
different again. This may in part be due to the fact that, unlike
most of Noel's earlier books for children, the setting is a country
village, rather than London. For example, rationing is mentioned,
but instead of causing day to day problems (as in Curtain
Up) it is seen rather as an issue to be overcome - and
it proves to be overcome rather more easily than the children's
mother expects. Being placed in 1945, the narrative is punctuated
with the excitements of VE day, and then VJ day, and finally the
news that Selina's parents are free from the prison camp in which
they had been held. The friendship between the villagers and the
American soldiers stationed there is also celebrated.
Angela Bull feels that
Party Frock is "the best of Noel's children's books
of this period, and as fine a piece of craftsmanship as she ever
achieved. ... A close scrutiny ... reveals Noel's tremendous technical
expertise. She manages a large cast and a complicated story with
such ease that the very real difficulties are never apparent"
(1984:183-4). Nancy Huse
adds to this that Noel "exploited her ability to present
multiple points of view and the relativity of time and space.
She extended the scope and depth of the family novel by drawing
children and adults into a rich common task with ultimate social
I have never quite shared the enthusiasm Angela
Bull and Nancy Huse
feel for Party Frock. In spite of its undeniable
technical merits, and its ability to capture the essence of a
specific period in English history, for me it lacks the appeal
of some of Noel's earlier works. One feature that sets it apart
is the essentially amateur nature of the theatrical production.
In fact, in the early stages (when it is still being exclusively
organised by the children) the willingness of adults, such as
Miss Lipscombe, to be involved seems rather improbable. Even after
Philip has extended the scope of the project, few of the participants
have the professionalism of the actors, dancers, circus performers,
and sportspeople of Noel's other works. Nancy
Huse suggests that Selina's, Sally's and Phoebe's futures
might be "bound up in the arts". However, this is only
a remote possibility. Although Phoebe is the best actress of the
children, there is no suggestion that she might follow it as a
career; Selina's "ASM" skills could be used in a wide
range of fields; and although the implication is that Sally will
eventually become a professional dancer, at this stage she is
little more than a talented child taking ballet classes.
Editions and Availability
Party Frock was first published in 1946 by Collins. It
was illustrated by Anna Zinkeisen.
It was reprinted in the 1950s and 1960s, with the later editions
being part of the Collins Seagull Library.
In 1971 it was reprinted as an Armada Lions paperback, still
with Anna Zinkeisen's illustrations.
In 1947, it was released in the United States by Random House,
as Party Shoes. There were at least four printings, including
a paperback version.
As I have not read the US editions, I do not know if the text
was in any way amended.
Still in Print
Party Shoes is out of print in the US.
In the UK, Oxford University Press has recently released two
paperback editions of different sizes - one trade
paperback size, the other a little smaller.
Somewhat oddly, both editions have the US title of Party Shoes.