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13 February 2009

Seeing Through Clothes: Milk, Mad Men, and Me

I finally saw Milk last night, and like Tracy, I left the theater in tears.

A lot of it was the memory of the events themselves – like the Briggs Initiative to rid California schools of gay and lesbian teachers (and their supporters) and the heroic, successful, hands-on campaign to defeat it.

I remember this particularly vividly because a friend of mine, activist Amber Hollibaugh, set off in a van and drove around rural California towns like the one she’d grown up in – an out lesbian taking on local fundamentalists in public debate, in 1978.

Could this have really happened, I ask myself? Could people really have been that brave?

It did happen. You can read Amber's account of it here.

But I know it's true because I remember how after the campaign, Amber showed me a lovely blousy overshirt (it was an era of big, filmy, voile-y sorts of things from India), and told me how she wore it to debate one Reverend Royal Blue of Redding, California. The shirt didn’t wrinkle, she said, and the metallic threads running through it gave it a sort of dressy look, good for being onstage in a local community center. Funny that amid all that astonishing, inspiring, take-on-the-world chutzpah, a big blue shirt with metallic threads running through it is what made Amber's bravery real for me.

Funny but true. There’s nothing like the clothing of an era to bring us back there. Milk has an uncanny, offhand realism about it – Sean Penn and other cast members wear the slouchy jeans of the late '70s just as I remember them being worn. And my husband Michael had that very same rust-colored jeans jacket – it would have been several years old in ’77 or ’78, which is accurate too (most of us don't throw our clothes away after a year).

In fact, the costumers the TV show, Mad Men talk somewhere in a DVD extra about the '50s clothes and objects they used for the show's 1960 first season.

Not that this favorite show of mine is anothing like Milk. Mad Men is about advertising rather than activism; it's cool rather than passionate, trading in desire and frustration rather than risk and triumph.

But what a sly, true take it has on an era's styles and surfaces, codes and constraints, as expressed through the world of objects its characters move through, sit on, wear, and (perhaps most especially) covet.

Sadly perhaps, since our cable contract is too "basic" for AMC, I'm a season behind and dependent on DVDs for my Mad Men fix. So I've only watched through end of Season One, the Thanksgiving 1960 episode (its ending credits scrolling against Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice," a song that wasn't written until 1962, the year Season Two begins – appropriately enough for this post, with a Valentine's Day episode).

But the enforced scarcity of a cheap cable contract makes me all the more obsessive consumer of the DVDs, plumbing the voiceovers and other extras for meaning – which in the case of Mad Men are the interviews with the costume designer and makeup people, along with snippets from the actors wearing the clothes and makeup:

- The women in their girdles and amazing torpedo bras: for all the lack of bodily freedom, many of the actresses admitted to enjoying feeling more "put-together" than we get to be these days)

- The men in their suits with the 13-inch fly zippers: the actors say the pants are too tight and rise too high; they complain of the discomfort. But watch them walk – watch John Hamm move across the frame (after the commercial – sorry! – about 1 minute, six seconds into this clip -- there, that wasn't so painful, was it?); I don’t know what it is about that walk, but I know that a part of me – a deeply desiring part of me from my early teens – remembers that walk and that look as a masculine ideal.

But as a writer I'm more interested in the clothes from the inside out. The way they make us feel when we wear them. Because our clothes may be our most consistent guides and goads to who we try to be in a world we didn’t create; our nakedness when we're alone an intermittent reminder that we aren't exactly those people; our nakedness with a lover a way of revealing this fact.

And the limnal moments of dressing and undressing, especially when shared with a lover (not to speak of a reader!)… well, in my writing, anyway, for me those are perhaps the sexiest, most complicated and challenging moments of all. Which is why, I guess, I care so much about what people really wore in the periods I write about – why, like Kalen Hughes, costume expert extraordinaire, I take seriously that Regency stays and shifts didn’t just fall off at the touch of a male finger.

(I’m indebted to Kalen, for example, for teaching me that in 1828 women’s stays began to have metal grommets around the holes for laces – can you think of a better way to show-not-tell the beginnings of an advent of radical physical unfreedom for women?)

And why I usually like to include a dressing as well as an undressing scene among the erotic parts of my books – because I love the pathos of people going back to their worlds, of eros and ego in a world of objects.

And why I’d love to know how the writers among you think about the clothes (period and otherwise) that you write about…

…and what you readers want when you read about them.

Oh, and an acknowledgment: The title of this post comes from Anne Hollander's deeply illuminating study of clothing in the western art tradition.

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13 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Once again, another provocative post, Pam!

I have to confess that I have not gotten into "Mad Men." I watched one episode where I swear they used an IBM Selectric II (it might even have been a Selectric III) and it was such an utter anachronism that it took me right out of the show and I never gave it a second chance. My grandfather was an ad man in the early 1960s, working for the venerated J. Walter Thompson Co. and my mother worked for them in the 1970s (as did I then, as an unpaid intern in the in-house p.r. dept.) and I didn't find anything familiar in "Mad Men" -- though I would love to ask my grandfather in a seance to critique the show for 1960s accuracy (he used to write a column for Variety in which he critiqued commercials. It's Hollywood fantasy to me, not a slice of retrogressive life.

But I do find that clothes make the human in many ways; including our choices of what to wear on any given day, a version of a "uniform" (an actual one or society's uniform for your walk of life -- whether it's a dark suit, or pencil skirt and sweater, or jeans and tee-shirt). From having worn corsets in many, many shows (and different styles of corset), I can attest to how they make you move differently (walk, sit, bend) and therefore inform so many other things about your "character." The same is true for shoes. The famous actress and teacher Uta Hagen used to say that when she found the shoes for the role she was playing, she found the character.

I am different characters every day, and my choice of "costume" is simultaneously based on my mood and informs it. This afternoon I'm the "writer" in jeans and a black cashmere turtleneck. This morning I was the athlete in a swimsuit and lycra cap. This evening I will be the lover when I wear something that makes me feel ultra-feminine when Scott and I go out to enjoy a [pre]-Valentine's Day dinner.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Pam! One of the many things I loved about "Milk" was how it pulled me back in time. I had a visceral sense of "yes, that's what it was like." As an historical novelist, I found the way it recreated the past with such texture and attention to detail fascinating.

I haven't seen "Mad Men," but I keep meaning to get the dvds and start from the beginning, because I've heard a lot of great things about it. I have pictures of my mom in the early 60s in outfits like the one picture--girdle, slip, heels, done hair. By the time I remember her, in the 70s, she wore jeans and birkenstocks and caftans and didn't get her hair permed any more.

As to clothes, I love them, in writing and in real life. I think a lot about the clothes my charactrs wear and what that says about them (I have to say, I'm quite fond of the line in "Secrets of a Lady" where Roth, the Bow Street Runner, thinks that Melanie "looks like a woman who always wore earrings." I love describing the clothes as the characters interact with them, whether it's dressing or undressing, or lifting a skirt the avoid the mud as one gets out of a carriage. In real life, like Amanda, I love the way that clothes let you be different characters. Today I'm a professional woman with evening plans, in a red and black sleeveless dress that's currently covered up by a red pearl-button cardigan.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Fascinating comments in return, ladies -- and what an interesting family you have, Amanda.

Clothing -- costume -- allows us all sorts of roles, but nowadays we're relatively free beneath it, compared to the corseting and constraints, both of the Regency and the early 60s -- the pre-60s 60s. And I guess that it's those constraints, that carapace of guilty, erotic desiring conscience worn next to the skin, that fascinate me here.

7:47 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

...which makes what one has on more erotic than what one doesn't have on. Those clothes that constrict and bind, or the fantasy, the imagining, of what lies beneath and what it might be like to touch it, can be infinitely sexier than masses of bare skin, free to be that way (i.e. the 70s vs. the 60s or 50s) without the sartorial constraints.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I have a serious love of costume, and the way that clothes inform, create and mold character fascinates me. A character simply isn't real for me until I know what's in their clothes press (much like Amanda's actress friend and her shoes). And much like Pam, I find that the scenes where characters dress and undress are some of the most erotic out there. Like taking off a mask and putting it back on, people are simply different when they're naked. Not necessarily more honest, but certainly more exposed. It's an interesting thing to explore. Who's more vulnerable naked? Who feels more powerful naked? How does the dynamic of the relationship change with the clothes come off, and when they go back on . . .

2:21 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Who's more vulnerable naked? Who feels more powerful naked? How does the dynamic of the relationship change with the clothes come off, and when they go back on . . .

A fantastic gloss, Kalen, on some of the doings in Lord Sin.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

What makes a book erotic for me isn't necessarily the word choices (cock instead of shaft for example) or even the amount of sex the characters have, it's the exploration of how power shifts, who has "hand", when and why . . . it's the psychological aspects of the seduction that interest me.

1:11 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Who has hand? Isn't hand a fabric term, Kalen?

10:04 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Yea, in that context it means how the fabric drapes. *grin*

6:58 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Or as my BDSM heroine Carrie has it, "I'm always a sucker for expertise of any kind."

8:50 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Pam, thanks so much--I saw Hollander's book in the library a few years ago and have made a half-hearted hobby ever since of trying to remember the title ("it's that book about how people with their clothes off look like they're wearing clothes etc. etc.") And now I'm getting a copy!

On the subject of historical nudity (for want of a better term), you'd get completely naked in front of your social inferiors. So for a woman to be naked and a man to be clothed is something of a power shift, which I think is interesting.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

That's fascinating, Janet. I always feel the opposite way ... from (umm...) personal experience, as well as the way the power shift is illustrated in films, in particular. When the man is clothed and the woman is nude or undressing/being undressed, she's the vulnerable, exposed one, and he is the one with the power -- even though I can see how it could be viewed the other way, if the woman is supremely confident in her own skin. It would depend on the real-life woman, or the way the fictional/cinematic character is written.

4:47 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

On the subject of historical nudity (for want of a better term), you'd get completely naked in front of your social inferiors.

I haven't every used that. Not exactly. Wow. Thanks for that, Janet.

7:01 AM  

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