Television series are like visual Cliff Notes when it comes to romance. In the span of a half hour or an hour, each episode must hit emotional high notes that romance novel builds up to in 300+ pages. Naturally, since TV is a visual medium, clothes are the easiest ways to hit these notes. Sometimes the cues are subtle: In the series, Justified, for example, Marshall Raylan Givens, wears an off-white Stetson—the first sign that this good guy might not be quite so good. He also wears the dark colors that are the uniform of the bad boy, usually an elegantly tailored sport coat, paired with jeans. This combination signals to the viewer that while Raylan has gained a veneer of sophistication during his time away from his hardscrabble Kentucky home, at heart, he’s still a rough and tumble cowboy.
Some visual cues are even more obvious. Dyson in Lost Girl favors black shirts and a dark blue and black vest with his jeans. (That is, when he’s not half, or completely, naked.) Occasionally, he tosses on a leather jacket. No doubt about it, black makes a bad boy even badder and when it’s black leather…rowwrrr. (If you doubt me, Google Richard Armitage and Guy of Gisborne. Or Richard Armitage and black leather. In fact, there are entire websites devoted to evolution of the 6’2 blue-eyed, black-haired actor’s leather costume in the BBC’s Robin Hood series.)
While watching my own personal Lost Girl marathon, I noticed an interesting thing. Spoiler alert. (But only about Dyson’s clothes.)
At a certain point in the story line, Dyson begins wearing rumpled pastel-colored cotton shirts and faded jeans. In one episode, he even dons a pale pink polo shirt and khakis. While there are arguably good reason for these fashion choices, super sexy Dyson is instantly transformed from delicious to dull. Needless to say, the overall effect is…well, depressing.
The effect of this visual cue—from black to pink—was so dramatic it got me thinking about the extent to which clothes make the man in romance. So, I went back to look at some of my romance heroes and was surprised by what I found. Visual cues in romance novels quite often are deceiving…
Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub opens with the hero, Vidal, riding in a coach at night. He is introduced, not with a physical description of his face or his body, but of his clothes. He’s riding in a coach in a speeding coach at night and the “occasional lantern light or flambeau” cuts through the darkness to reveal a diamond pin, a pair of large shoe buckles, a gold-edged hat tilted low over his eyes, obscuring his face.Vidal is a wealthy and powerful man, dark and dangerous, but Heyer’s description suggests there’s more to him than than meets the eye. His true self, the tender romantic the heroine will fall in love with, is deliberately concealed behind an elegant exterior.
When the reader first glimpses the Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, he isn’t even dressed as a man, but as an old hag holding a whip to which have the locks of victims of the guillotine. The ‘hag’ is stroking the hair with a “huge bony hand.” When the hero appears in what is supposedly his ‘true identity,’ several chapters later, an “inane laugh” is “heard from outside” and then an “unusually tall and very richly dressed figure” appears in the doorway. What is interesting about these descriptions is that while both are disguises of weakness—an old woman, a fop—both also hint at the incredible strength of the hero behind the façade.
In Linda Howard’s Mr. Perfect, the reader first sees the hero through the heroine’s eyes. He’s her “ill-tempered” neighbor, whom she describes as “a rough-looking character…who didn’t seem to a hold down a regular job. At best, he was a drunk, and drunks could be mean and destructive. At worst, he was involved in illegal stuff which added dangerous to the list.” While Sam Donovan is definitely dangerous, I suspect there are few examples in romance literature where a first impression has been so deliciously and delightfully wrong…
Which hero’s clothes suit his personality the best? Which do you remember the most?
Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.