Readers' Favorite

March 9, 2016

The Well-Dressed Character

by Alison DeLuca

I’m not exactly a fashion plate, something you'd pick right up if you ever met me and my well-worn t-shirts from Monkees concerts. Instead of hitting the mall or city for a day of buying new clothes, I’d rather stay at home with a book and a cup of tea. Let’s just say online shopping sites are my friend.

So, since in real life I’m no clotheshorse, I love living vicariously through books with wonderful fashions. Some characters are lucky enough to have amazing clothes. Obvious examples are (and my 80’s side is showing here) the women in Judith Krantz novels, always waltzing around in Chanel.

Sometimes an author uses her descriptions of dress to add to the novel. For example, a person’s character will be reflected by what he wears or, if the author is really clever, the action is amplified by color and attitude – just as designers in films set a certain style with costumes. Writers can also reveal a time period or setting by what the characters have on, and if they’ve done their research, the result is amazing.

1. Georgette Heyer did exactly that, spending days in museums sketching actual clothes from the 19th century so she could use them in her novels. One character in Cotillion, Freddy, is well-known for being a “veritable Tulip or Bond Street Beau”:

Upon his brown locks, carefully anointed with Russian oil, and cropped a la titus, he wore a high-crowned beaver hat, set at an exact angle between the rakish and the precise; on his hands were gloves of York tan; under one arm he carried a Malacca cane.

And of course her heroines are beautifully dressed as well:

From Wikipedia

Meg swept in upon them , resplendent in a new pelisse of Sardinian blue velvet, and a bonnet with an audaciously curtailed poke and a forest of curled plumes…

2. In The Danish Girl, women’s clothes are pivotal images that begins an entire series of events and the plot of the book:

The shoes were like the ones they had seen the previous week in the window of Fennesbech’s department store, displayed on a mannequin in a midneight-dress. Einar and Greata had stopped to admire the window, which was trimmed with a garland of jonquils. Great said, “Pretty, yes?” When he didn’t respond, his reflection wide-eyed in the plate, Greata had to pull him away from Fonnesbech’s window. She tugged him down the street, past the pipe shop, saying, “Einar, are you all right?”

3. And it isn’t just adults who wear lovely clothes, as in this excerpt from A Little Princess:

Sara stayed with her father at his hotel for several days; in fact, she remained with him until he sailed away again to India. They went out and visited many big shops together, and bought a great many things. They bought, indeed, a great many more things than Sara needed; but Captain Crewe was a rash, innocent young man, and wanted his little girl to have everything she admired and everything he admired himself, so between them they collected a wardrobe much too grand for a child of seven. There were velvet dresses trimmed with costly furs, and lace dresses, and embroidered ones, and hats with great, soft ostrich feathers, and ermine coats and muffs, and boxes of tiny gloves and handkerchiefs and silk stockings in such abundant supplies that the ploite young women behind the counters whispered to each other that the odd little girl with the big, solemn eyes must be at least some foreign princess – perhaps the little daughter of an Indian rajah.

4. In Jane Eyre characterization is made really clear in Jane’s dress versus Blanche Ingram’s fancy gowns:

I remember her appearance at the moment, -it was very graceful and very striking: she wore a morning robe of sky-blue crape; a gauzy azure scarf was twisted in her hair.

Jane, on the other hand, doesn’t even get a fancy dress for her wedding:

Sophie came at seven to dress me; she was very long indeed in accomplishing her task – so long that Mr. Rochester, grown, I suppose, impatient of my delay, sent up to ask why I did not come. She was just fastening my veil (the plain square of blond after all)to my hair with a brooch; I hurred from under her hands as soon as I could.
‘Stop!’ she cried in French. ‘Look at yourself in the mirror: you have not taken one peep.’So I turned at the door: I saw a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger.

5. Modern fiction characterizes with clothes as well. Two of my favorites are the next two passages. The first is Plainsong. Maggie Jones, a teacher, is described with Haruf’s classic economy of writing:

A tall healthy dark-haired woman, she was dressed in a black skirt and white blouse and wore considerable silver jewelry.

6. The Accidental Tourist highlights the two women in Macon Leary’s life. Like Jane Eyre, Anne Tyler points out the difference between them with clothes.

He said, “Sarah?”She wore a beige suit, and she carried two pieces of matched luggage, and she brought a kind of breeze of efficiency with her.

Muriel, Macon’s girlfriend after Sarah leaves him, is completely different.

To each the pilot said, “Hey, how you doing.” He let his eyes rest longest on Muriel. Either he found her the most attractive or else he was struck by her outfit. She wore her highest heels, black stockings spattered with black net roses, and a flippy little fuschia dress under a short fat coat that she referred to as her “fun fur.” Her hair was caught all to one side in a great bloom of frizz, and there was a silvery dust of some kind on her eyelids. Macon knew she’d overdone it, but at the same time he liked her considering this such an occasion.

7. In Have His Carcase, Dorothy Sayers points out Harriet Vane’s personality not only by what she wears but also by what she doesn’t.

…her luggage was not burdened by skin-creams, insect-lotions, silk frocks, portable electric irons…. She was dressed sensibly in a short skirt and thin sweater and carried, in addition to a change of linen and an extra provision off footwaear, little else beyond a pocket edition o f Tristram Shandy, a vest-pocket camera, a small first-aid outfit and a sandwich lunch.

8. When the books and movies get costumes right, it can be magical. Katniss’s dresses show imagination and make the world of The Hunger Games come alive.
from giphy.gif

He places a half crown like the one I received as victor on my head, but it’s made of a heavy black metal, not gold. Then he adjusts the light in the room to mimic twilight and presses a button just inside the fabric on my wrist. I look down, fascinated, as my ensemble slowly comes to life, first with a soft golden light but gradually transforming to the orange-red of burning coal. I look as if I have been coated in glowing embers – no, that I am a glowing ember straight from our fireplace. The colors rise and fall, shift and blend, in exactly the way the coals do.

 9. And let’s not forget graphic novels. Perhaps the finest example of the genre is Watchmen, and clothes (or the lack of them, in Dr. Manhattan’s case) are really important. Laurie starts in a matronly vest and mom jeans, reverts to a sexy superhero costume as The Silk Spectre, and winds up nude. Like everything else in the book, her clothes amplify the action.

This is my kind of shopping, living in the skins of characters who are dressed in fantasy and imagination. Reading about them is just so much better than crowded food courts and stale churros!

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  1. I loved the clothing in The Great Gatsby. One of the reasons I read The Selection series was the beautiful dresses on the covers.

    1. Oh, yes! That novel is filled with wonderful description of twenties' fashions.

  2. Important post, with examples from classics to contemporary work and various genres. Most impressive is how dress is shown to work for each story. Am bookmarking and sending to Kindle to keep. Thanks so much!

    1. Thanks so much, Adan! I wrote it on the floor, surrounded by piles of all my favorite books. In fact, it was difficult to narrow down my literary clothing selections to a few samples!

    2. That's even more impressive then :) Have also shared on Twitter :)