History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

02 June 2010

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?

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Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Wonderful post, Tracy! I, too, love clothing in real life as well as in fiction and I remember agreeing enthusiastically with Pam's post about clothes indeed being a statement of character. Nothing is truer in film and onstage, either. Think about Stanley Kowalski's iconic white "wife-beater" tee shirt; the black hats and white hats of movie Westerns that define the "good guys" and the "bad guys" (take a look at SHANE again for a textbook example).

When I played the role of Mary in VANITIES, I knew I'd found something about her character after I found a pair of sunglasses that someone had left in the rehearsal room. The late, great Uta Hagen once said that she found her character in a given play once she found the right shoes. Walking in your character's shoes is a marvelous metaphor for what we are doing as artists.

Right now I'm getting into the head of the ultimate fashionista, Marie Antoinette; but she was not always the biggest thoroughbred of clothes horses. She was molded into them, literally as well as figuratively, as she was thoroughly coached to become the dauphine of France. After her arrival at Versailles, when she realized that she far outranked her "handlers," she rebelled and was very lax about her wardrobe and toilette. It was not until the king's mistress, the former streetwalker who became Madame duBarry, flaunted her gowns and jewels and accessories (all largesse from Louis XV) that Marie Antoinette recognized that, as the first woman in France (the king was a widower by then), she (MA) needed to outshine everyone else -- especially the king's whore.

Interestingly, MA's husband, the dauphin (and future Louis XVI) had zero interest in fashion and when left to his own devices, particularly as a teen, was said to have dressed like a peasant or farmer. It will be a lot of fun to work on defining their relationship through their choice of clothing every day.

6:24 AM  
Blogger DinahT said...

As a reader and costumer, I do pay attention to clothing. My husband has a tendency to tease me about being to much of a authenticy freak. I love history (always have)and details do really count in getting the feel right.

6:32 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love love love clothes. I love what they say about characters, what they say about the era. I particularly love discovering which bits mean something to the opposing protagonist. What does he/she notice and fixate on? Clothes are a security blanket. Strip them away, force a character into clothes which are not their own, and see what happens . . .

In my WIP I’ve got characters on the run (it’s an abduction, rescue, and road novel), and the heroine’s one and only gown is pretty much a rag now. She’s going to have to deal with looking like a shag rag, which is going to be HARD for her, cause she’s soooo not that kind of girl (a muddy hunt field, fine; a torn and muddy gown, no no no!). She’s used to artifice and control, and she’s losing it all, which leaves her exposed on far too many levels at once. Let the games begin!

7:46 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

How nice to be quoted. Thanks, Tracy, and thanks for a terrific post.

I've always loved that first undressing scene in Secrets of a Lady. The relaxed intimacy of it -- the tension of the reader knowing more than the characters (read it, folks).

And I love love love dressing a historical character -- especially in such a materialistic (as it were) period as the Regency, when people could tell so much about your position in life by how you dressed. I imagine Jane Fairfax, from Emma, dressed in less good quality fabric than Emma Woodhouse -- but more elegantly, her gown modest but still a bit lower cut at the throat, the gown having been made by a London modiste. And I imagine her wondering why Emma never went to London to have her clothes made:

Why, when she was so studiously, supremely bored by Highbury, did she never leave the place?
Was she afraid to go somewhere she wouldn’t feel herself a leading personage?

But perhaps my favorite moment of dressing a character was in my Molly Weatherfield erotic novel, Carrie's Story (Story of O reconceived for contemporary San Francisco), where my bike-messenger heroine wears:

black tights, torn, baggy khaki pants cut off below the knee, neon orange Converse hightops, and a ratty brown leather bomber jacket, with a teeshirt underneath that said Dead Elvis

10:24 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Leslie, so true about costumes.I was recently watching an early rehearsal for the production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" I'm helping with. The costume designer was there to present his sketches, and then he put rehearsal corsets on the women. It really made a difference in how they moved.

Dealing with clothing in your Marie Antoinette books will be so fun!

10:52 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Dinah, I so agree details are vital in getting the feel right. Sometimes too, it's a detail (the way a corset fastens, the stitching on a glove) that brings a character and scene to life more than a description of a complete ensemble.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, such a good point about clothing being a security blanket. That's why I spent a lot of time on Charles and Mel's clothes being destroyed (cut, torn, pieces lost) when they leave the safety of their jewel-box world in Berkeley Square and when revelations are threatening their image as a "golden couple." It sounds as though you're doing something similar with your heroine in your WIP (I love road novels!). I can so identify with the frustration of being stuck in a ruined dress!

11:00 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the inspiration, Pam, and for the nice words about the opening scene in "Secrets of a Lady." That was one of the hardest scenes I've ever written, because although the plot is underway and the reader knows it, Charles and Mélanie don't. So they had to have a "normal conversation" and yet still keep it interesting to the reader. I rewrote it a zillion times, though in the end I was quite happy with it.

Love the contrast between Emma and Carrie, with detail important in both!

11:03 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

And speaking of spending a considerable portion of the story in a ruined dress and what that does to a character, think about Kate in THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, being schlepped about in her increasingly soiled and tattered wedding dress after the aborted ceremony (and think about what Petruchio dared to wear to their wedding).

Witness this exchange between the servant Biondello ("little blondie" -- so Shakespeare even told you how to cast ... a towhead, or an exact opposite, if you wanted to make a joke) and Kate's father Baptista:

Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old
jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled, another laced, an old rusty sword ta'en out of the town-armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless; with two broken points: his horse hipped with an old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred; besides, possessed with the glanders and like to mose in the chine; troubled with the lampass, infected with the fashions, full of wingdalls, sped with spavins, rayed with yellows, past cure of the fives, stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the bots, swayed in the back and shoulder-shotten; near-legged before and with, a half-chequed bit and a head-stall of sheeps leather which, being restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been often burst and now repaired with knots; one girth
six time pieced and a woman's crupper of velure,
which hath two letters for her name fairly set down in studs, and here and there pieced with packthread.

Who comes with him?

O, sir, his lackey, for all the world caparisoned
like the horse; with a linen stock on one leg and a kersey boot-hose on the other, gartered with a red and blue list; an old hat and 'the humour of forty fancies' pricked in't for a feather: a monster, a very monster in apparel, and not like a Christian footboy or a gentleman's lackey.

'Tis some odd humour pricks him to this fashion;
Yet oftentimes he goes but mean-apparell'd.

I am glad he's come, howsoe'er he comes.

Shakespeare even tells us how Petruchio's horse is caparisoned, and how his servant Grumio is dressed, trebling the insult to Kate and her family.

And there's lovesick Malvolio from TWELFTH NIGHT in his ludicrous yellow cross-gartered hose.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great point, Leslie! Clothes are particularly important in "Taming of the Shrew." There's also the cap Kate wants that Petruchio throws on the floor with the whole "gentle folk wear such caps"/"when you are gentle you shall have one" (quoting from memory, so I probably don't have the exact wording) exchange.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Jack Nicholson said about The Joker that sometimes you don't have the character until you have the costume. (paraphrasing madly)

I felt that way about Hélène, my heroine/spy, in BOND OF FIRE, which starts in the Vendée during the French Revolution. I simply could not get a handle on how she thought until I realized being a fashionista and a shopaholic was her refuge. It was what she did when she was lonely and unhappy. When she was happy, she just liked to spend time with her family and clothes didn't matter.

But, oh, the clothes when she was doing the fashionista bit!

7:20 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a great insight into your character, Diane! I think clothes are particularly important to spies, because, as with actors, they're part of the persona they adopt.

11:19 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think clothes are particularly important to spies, because, as with actors, they're part of the persona they adopt.

This is often how I feel about my characters (heroines in particular). A life in the ton was a life on stage for so many. You had roles to play, assignments to carry out, goals to meet.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

So true, Kalen! The ton were always performing to a degree. In fact, I think we are all wear slightly different "masks" to some extent and different events and with different people--at business lunches, at cocktail parties, at family holiday parties--and different outfits to go with each.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love that observation about life in the ton as performance. AND Tracy's response.

But then, aren't most of us performing the gender roles we had to learn as children and adolescents?

10:33 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I think we're performing all sorts of different roles, Pam--gender roles, professional roles, roles in the family, roles with friends (sometimes different roles with different groups of friends), etc...

12:38 PM  
Blogger Marian Perera said...

I enjoyed this post because it's true - you can reveal a great deal about someone's character by what they wear, how they wear it and even details such as the colors. If the heroine is first seen in s dress that's "the color of ice", she'll come across as cold, too.

In my book BEFORE THE STORM, the heroine is associated with black - she's called the Black Mare, she uses a black ribbon as a bookmark and she wears a black dress when she's taken to the hero. Black is a dark, brooding and sinister color - but it also implies seduction. Bad girls wear that color. :)

5:53 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great point, Marian. Color is another whole way of playing with clothing and characters and can convey so much. As you say, "she wore an ice blue gown" conveys a very different image from "she wore a gown of warm yellow." A heroine in black or red creates a very different image from a heroine in white muslin. I love playing with color and fabric together. Blue-sashed white muslin creates quite a different image from pearl-stitched white satin.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love it! Women's clothing has changed so dramatically throughout time that's it's fascinating to see period pieces that are done well. I just love all the costumes.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Eric! I think clothing is a great way to bring an historical era to life.

11:18 PM  
Blogger Maria said...

I definitely agree that clothing makes the character! The wardrobe in a movie is one of the most important parts! If the characters are not dressed right, it doesn't matter how good the acting is. It's still not going to flow like it's supposed to! Check out www.adressyoccasion.com. They have super cute dresses!

10:01 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for posting, Maria. I do think clothing sets the mood and helps create the world, whether in a novel or a movie or play.

10:22 AM  

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