Pam Rosenthal had a wonderful post on History Hoydens recently about period clothing in the wonderful movie Milk and the fascinating television show Mad Men and in historical fiction. As I blogged about earlier on History Hoydens, 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 started watching Mad Men (I’m in the midst of catching up on season one with dvds). It’s a riveting, 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’m looking forward to the Academy Awards tomorrow night, partly because I love movies, but also because I love looking at the clothes :-). I love the way dressing each day let’s one put on a costume in a sense, decide who one wants to be that day and which clothes best fit the role (the former actress in me). As a writer, I think a lot about the clothes my characters wear and what that says about them. I love to pour over Regency fashion plates 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. 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.
Writers, how do you approach clothing your characters? Readers, do you notice details about clothing in books? Any examples that particularly stand out? What sort of clothes do you think Mélanie and Charles and the other characters in their world would wear if they were living today? Has anyone scene Mad Men and/or Milk? Planning to watch the Academy Awards?
This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Lady Frances to Raoul O’Roarke about the dinner party Mélanie was planning with Isobel Lydgate a couple of weeks ago.