Clothing Makes the Character
Pam had a great post last year about period clothing in the wonderful movie Milk and the fascinating television show Mad Men and in historical fiction. As I blogged about around the same time, one of the things I loved about Milk was its wonderfully vivid recreation, in settings and costumes, of San Francisco in the 70. At times I felt I was watching scenes from my childhood. I recently caught up on seasons one and two of Mad Men and then was riveted to season three (and am now eagerly awaiting season four). It's a fascinating, layered show, that brings to life New York in the early 1960s. It's the era when my parents were dating and first married. I have pictures of them in similar clothes to those in the show, my dad in suits and ties and gleaming white shirts, my mom in fitted dresses and suits that required a girdle and a structured bra. By the time I remember them, in the 70s, my dad's version of formal was a turtleneck under a sports coat, and my mom usually wore jeans to work or Diane von Furstenberg-type dresses that were fluid and much less structured. They look like different people from the couple in polished, formal clothes in those early 60s photographs.
Clothes are so much a part of defining a character. As Pam wrote, 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.
I love clothes, both as a writer and in real life.I think a lot about the clothes my characters wear and what that says about them. I love to pour over Regency fashion plates (I'm so thankful for Candice Hern's great website)and think about which clothes would fit which character. Sometimes I think about what sort of clothes my characters would wear if they were living in the present day, which can be an interesting way to get a new take on the characters.
I like to describe clothes as the characters interact with them. I think quite a bit is revealed about Charles and Mélanie in the first scene between them in Secrets of a Lady where Charles shrugs out of his evening coat sparing a silent curse for the close-fitting passions of the day while Mélanie unwinds the voluminous folds of her cashmere shawl, peels off her gloves, unwinds the ivory satin ribbons that crisscrossed her silk-stockinged ankles. Charles is impatient with clothing and doesn't think about it much. Mélanie removes each layer with care. I changed the color of Mélanie's dress in that scene several times, until I settled on champagne-colored silk, which immediately seemed right. Writing this post, I realized there's also a metaphorical element in that Charles and Mel are undressing in that first scene, removing the layers of clothing that define and contain their roles, in the way they will strip away layers of secrets in the course of the story. Recently a reader commented on the fact that their clothes disintegrate over the course of their adventures, as the façade of their perfect life also crumbles.
Later in the book, Mélanie thinks She felt naked and vulnerable, as though the layers of goffered linen and pin-tucked sarcenet and rushed velvet had been stripped from her body. Layers that constrained her but also defined who she was, who had been for seven years. I think I pay particular attention to clothes and accessories when I'm writing about Mélanie because she's always playing a role. One of the first lines I wrote about Jeremy Roth was where he thinks that Mel looked like a woman who always wore earrings, which I think says a lot about both Mélanie and Roth. In Beneath a Silent Moon, Mélanie wears a shirt and breeches for a couple of nighttime adventures. I hadn't planned that in advance, but when I got to the scene where she and Charles go to explore Dunmykel's secret passage, it occurred to me that Mel, who always dresses for the part, almost certainly would wear breeches on occasion and would probably have packed them on this trip, knowing the sort of adventures she and Charles might encounter at Dunmyel. That led to the sequence later where she's mistaken for a boy by the smugglers. The morning following the first scene, Mélanie thinks that She'd exchanged last night's shirt and breeches for a cambric morning dress, scalloped and threaded through with peach silk ribbon. The ensemble of a decorous wife. Like me, Mel understands that the right clothing defines a character.
Vienna Waltz, on which I'm currently finishing up revisions, takes place in the social whirl of the Congress of Vienna, so clothes are particularly important to all the characters. Whether it's masquerade ball costumes, elaborate court dress, Renaissance costumes the Carrousel (a recreation of a tournament) or simply what one wears to pay a morning call. In the midst of investigating a murder, Mélanie/Suzanne thinks She chose a Vitoria cloak of Pomona green sarcenet and a French bonnet of green velvet and white satin with Blanca’s advice (she was after all calling on one of the most fashionable women in Vienna though the purpose of the visit was not social). She also ruins an evening gown early on in the book, climbing over the roofs of Vienna to avoid pursuit. She tends to be hard on her clothes. I'd been in tears if I ruined so many beautiful dresses.
Writers, how do you approach clothing your characters? Readers, do you notice details about clothing in books? Any examples that particularly stand out?